Q: When is a drummer not a drummer? A: when they don’t just hit things but also strum, pluck, plink, mix, and produce. This not another bad drummer joke but a true fact about Matt Donovan, former drummer for bands like ‘Ray On’ and ‘Eat Light, Become Lights’, and someone who is way more than the sum of his drums. Underwater Swimming is the culmination of months of building up equipment for a home studio and then working hard at the digital/analogue coalface to roughly shape, and then refine the songs that make up the album. Here we have a collection of psych-influenced tracks where motorik beats and pulsing rhythms abound, and where loping Tina Weymouth-style basslines rub up against tablas, pockets of keyboard riffs join with searing guitar washes and super-catchy riffs.
Opening track ‘Moon’s Umbra’ has guitar-siren running through it and an organ sound that flies into the chorus and bounces off the bass line. A haunted acoustic guitar opens ‘Mountain Missed’, there’s juddering electric guitar lines and the delightful chaos of two competing vocal lines which are sweetened by a perfect recurring keyboard motif and an equally hypnotic guitar riff. ‘Wakhan Thanka’ is driven by a low rumbling bass line and disco beat that veers off into a sandpaper guitar line that scrapes along the ground until a keyboard line brings a sweet counterpoint to the abrasiveness. ‘Crystalline’ is a half and half song that opens with rising and falling keyboard noises, reminiscent of arcade games, which morphs into an almost alien-calypso with gentle guitar lines floating overhead. ‘Lap Creature’ is halfway between ‘Heroes’ and ‘With or Without You’, driven by strings and bass, treated vocals in the verses and understated warmth from the vocals in the chorus.
‘Watch the Pressure’ is one of the standouts on the album with its slow burning momentum, mesmeric bass and guitar lines, and vocals that have been burned in production to the point of being charcoal. ‘A.I. Blues’ is a slow walk through an icy landscape, whereas ‘The Ocean Stood Still’ has the pacifying feel of standing by the sea at midnight with only the stars and the deep layered waves of guitar and keyboards for company. From oceans to ‘Rowing for Freedom’ which is every bit as moody as a turbulent sea before the final trick up Donovan’s sleeve which is to say goodbye to us with the track ‘Hell-o’, an arpeggiating solar storm that’s alive with bursts of bravura drums and impassioned vocals.
It’s the test of a true musician to not be bound by their main instrument but know how to write, arrange and play all the instruments and create whole worlds in their music. The songs on Underwater Swimming rarely exceed 5 minutes but so much is packed into each track it’s like a delicious fruit cake of dense sounds that tickle the amygdala and will have you going back to listen multiple times, allowing you to notice something you didn’t hear before. This is a very accomplished debut from a drummer that would normally be able to dislodge plaster from any ceiling, but on this album shows what an exceptional songwriter he is. I sincerely hope that there’s another album in the works but, until then, I am very happy to let the waters of Underwater Swimming wash over me.
Matt Donovan on Twitter
Review by Paul F Cook