Despite the cultural significance it has for those of us in the UK, I've never actually dived too deeply into chillout music before. The style was pioneered at the great London nightclub Heaven, and dance music institution Ministry Of Sound have been upholding the chillout genre for the best part of two decades now. When house music was at it's peak of commercial popularity in the UK, chillout was there alongside as it's relaxing, spaced-out partner. Whilst I can't profess to being an expert in chillout, I am familiar enough with the style and it's roots in ambient house, as well as it's relationship to downtempo and trip-hop, to find Take A Deep Breath, the debut album from A Better Life, an incredibly intriguing and creative project.
My experience with these sounds is often as a constituent part to some exploration of native music, jazz-fusion or spoken word, but A Better Life take quite a pure approach to chillout. The UK collective are led by songwriter and producer Phil Daniels, who is joined by instrumentalists Andrew Richardson, Alan Henery and Andrew Ryder-Richardson, producer Bryn Wulff-John, and vocal collaborators Pete Rawcliffe and Herica And The Wolf. Across the eight tracks on Take A Deep Breath the collective craft a delicate and sublime soundscape that is absorbing in exactly the way chillout music should be.
The album kicks off with Mono Heart, which builds up from a minimal beginning into a highly atmospheric concoction of layered synths, melancholy guitars, rolling percussion and dramatic vocal riffs. It's a perfect way to set the ambience and style of the album. The second track The Thrill Of Freedom has a more typical structure to it, with the extraordinary lead vocals from Pete Rawcliffe leading us through the subtle waves of piano and synths. There's a captivating rhythm section too, with the organic bass sitting nicely in time with the shuffling electronic beat.
Dreaming Of The Beach sees the group delve into some field recordings, utilising a sample of slowly crashing waves, children laughing and seagulls calling before the track kicks off into the most addictive hook on the album. Herica And The Wolf provides a sensational vocal performance, full of an emotion that breaks through the beautiful melodies and reverberating beats with perfect balance. Souda Bay puts the guitar at the forefront, with two duelling Mediterranean fingerpicking style guitars providing a lovely dynamic to the ambience that surrounds them.
Fuego focusses in on the Iberian influence, featuring an elegant spoken word piece given in Spanish by Herica And The Wolf that overlays some slow droning synths and subtle but highly evocative notes of guitar and percussion. It gives way to a sombre trumpet in the final movement, slowly drifting through the ether into a calming finale. Against The Breeze once again sees a passionate vocal performance from Herica And The Wolf, this time against a backdrop of bitter-sweet piano melodies. The track builds up in intensity with impeccable craft, gently introducing new ambient elements that seem to swirl weightlessly beneath the vocal.
A Moment Of Nothing has a relatively hefty percussive element to start, and brings in some middle-eastern influences in the fluttering vocal runs and pulsating bass lines. As it goes on, an ethereal quality start to develop as all the parts seem to flow together effortlessly. It's a lovely counterpoint to the energetic title track that closes out the album; despite the foot-tapping beats, the spoken word vocal seems to come from a meditation instruction. As this final track builds up, the energy that has threaded it's way through the whole album starts to transform into something almost transcendental in nature.
Take A Deep Breath is a delightfully hypnotic album that brings a depth of unique influence to the classic chillout sound. The vocals are stunning in every track, even when they are used simply as an atmospheric device, and the balance of free-form instrumental ambience and structured song-writing is superb. A Better Life can be extremely proud of what they have created here, because the more I listen to it the more I get the feeling that Take A Deep Breath is a simply outstanding record.
Take A Deep Breath will be released on 1st May 2021. You can find out more about A Better Life, including music and social media links, on their official website.