Hazel Mills new EP The Embrace is a grown-up electronic release that’s picking up its PhD when other artists who work with synthesisers are still at primary school. Hazel Mills may not be a household name yet but if you have seen Goldfrapp, Florence + The Machine or Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble live you will have seen Mills on keyboards and backing vocals. In fact, she is currently in Australia with Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and The Australian Chamber Orchestra performing ‘A Clockwork Orange and Beyond’, a celebration of Classic synth-led film scores.
The four tracks on The Embrace are a tonic for ears that crave the kind of thoughtful and engrossing music that shares its DNA with electronic pioneers such as Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos, and more modern artists like David Sylvian and the late Ryuichi Sakamoto. Mills is an electronic Prospero summoning and controlling all the elements; unsurprising given that, as well as being an amazing keyboard player, Hazel Mills understands what goes on under the wood and plastic facia of a synthesiser and knows how to surf the various electronic sine, sawtooth and square waves.
The attention to detail on these tracks is meticulous. Precision can be a beautiful thing, like a watch mechanism or the bubble on a spirit level but the danger is that everything can become too clinical but there’s not a bit of that here. The Embrace has an emotional depth that welcomes you with digital warp and analogue weft, an electronic/analogue Yin and Yang that creates dramatic tension throughout the EP. Mills says “The battle of nature vs modernity is ever present, and I’m largely drawn to the tactile and the dramatic of both sides of the coin. Perhaps my eco-anxiety also just wants to find a way to unite them”.
The opening track ‘Enclosure’ has percussive bubbles bouncing around like wood blocks and glass filtered through a circuit board, ‘The Embrace’ is built on lows and highs that often pause, like a held breath, and there is a sense of nature reclaiming our world, sending out vines, morphing everything like an organic version of Tetsuo. ‘Hold The Water’ inhabits the inky blackness of the deep with swelling chords that can free dive to the lower octaves while others shimmer like ice on the surface. There is a melancholy turbulence in the arrangement, particularly the treated vocals in the chorus. ‘Fragile Creature’ is the crowning glory of the EP as it has all the delicate beauty that Kate Bush achieves on ‘And Dream Of Sheep’ or ‘This Woman’s Work’.
The Embrace is exquisitely executed and made in collaboration with producer/engineer TJ Allen. But at the heart of all these remarkable tracks is Hazel Mills’ stunning voice. Her control is astonishing as she has the fluidity to be light and mellifluous but then flex to a near-roar while retaining such tonal clarity. With this EP the spotlight has rightfully moved from Hazel Mills the supporting performer and is now shining, front and centre, on Hazel Mills the star.
If you want a deeper dive into Hazel Mills as a keyboardist and programmer then you can hear her talking in detail about her electronic life on the Podcast Why We Bleep and also see her set up for the recent Goldfrapp tour on the Goldfrapp Rig Tour Rundown. I have also included Hazel Mills lockdown ‘live at home’ version of Japan’s ‘Ghosts’ with percussionist Harriet Riley because it is so beautiful.
Review by Paul F Cook