Billowing out of the Windy City on a compacted strata of sticky electronics, fidgety hand percussion and horn figures so mellow you put a baggy suit on them and let them loose on a venture capitalist’s mega-yacht, comes Quicksails, the solo project from Chicago adventurer Ben Billington. Mortal builds on the labyrinthine pulsations of 2015’s Spillage, smoothing off that album’s rougher edges and noisy digressions to produce something sleeker and groovier. Mortal’s nine cuts have a drowsy swagger, a bit like Flying Lotus after a heavy lunch of Gummy Bears, with the hypnotic tempos of Billington’s wonky beats always held in check by waves of tranquilized synthwash and glistening slo-mo arpeggios. Multi-instrumentalist Billington has drummed with free jazz outfit Tiger Hatchery and proggers Moonrise, among others, and his keen rhythmic sense steers Mortal away from standard four-to-the-four bangers, even if his opaque, dayglo electronics recall the deep lushness of those classic 90s ‘progressive’ house music voyagers (remember SIL’s Windows or Leftfield’s Not Forgotten?). If that all sounds like ancient history, fear not – this is as fresh as a blue daisy. For proof, look not further than Ambassador’s loopy-cute off-beat, its gravelly bleep like a hepcat finger snap for the digital age, driving forward the warm marimba clonks and paisley-pattern synths without ever getting in the way of the wide-eyed ambience. Dance of Eyes does something similar, with a rattling curtain of woody pops and clicks gently propelling its hymn-like organ chords further and further out.
That said, the shuffle of The Compound Blues does recall the caffeinated strut of Innerzone Orchestra’s Bug in the Bassbin, albeit one accompanied by a chorus of jazz frogs and some rather jaunty wafts of tenor saxophone, courtesy of Carlos Chavarria. He crops up again on album opener Valley Voice, this time adding some raspy licks to the stream of blips and pitch-bent synths to achieve a satisfyingly cosmic vibe. Billington and Chavarria play together in ADT, another Chicago outfit, and founder member Jake Acosta also steps in to add some gorgeous pocket trumpet motifs to Hall Song’s late-night blend of liquid electro-gloop and brushed snare. Mortal’s liner notes talk about composition taking place in ‘a year of intense personal upheavals’, and perhaps this is why Hall Song seems suffused with a melancholy that’s a lot more tangible than the usual jazz blue moods. Elsewhere the personal seems a lot less direct, at times refracted through a slightly disembodied – medicated? – haze, at others replaced by a kind of tense euphoria, half-serotonin rush, half-caffeine spasm. As listeners, we can only guess what’s going on, or maybe just admire how well Billington has channeled his struggles into his art, like a Dantean pilgrim crawling through the darkness and emerging into a vast jewelled cavern, the humble torchlight made day-bright by the glorious beauty within.