One of the most pleasing things about writing about new music is seeing how bands evolve. Some find a formula that works for them and set about either refining that sound, whittling it to a perfect, needle-sharp point, or bulking it up with extra instrumentation and bolted on motifs borrowed from other genres, flexing like musical musclemen as their sound gets ever broader. Others, like Anglo-Maltese quartet ĠENN, set about taking that sound apart, seeing what makes it tick and then reassembling it in new and unexpected shapes, and with debut album unum, which follows bright and bouncy funk punk debut single ‘Duda Dance’ and their splendid 2021 EP Liminal, they have taken their knack for writing great individual songs and transformed it into a wonderfully cohesive whole. Perhaps given its title, the Latin word for oneness, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Given the huge range of influences and ideas that they’ve thrown at the record, that is some achievement. Peer deep into the dark, murky waters that pervade much of the album and you’ll spot kaleidoscopic shoals of psychedelic rock, sharp-toothed post-punk, uncanny prog tentacles feeling their way through the gloom and blankets of jazz algae luminescing through the mud kicked up by a peckish flamingo, which like the influence of Maltese folk form għana on this record, should look completely out of place, but somehow it seems like the scene wouldn’t be complete without them. This is the sound of a band supremely confident in what they are doing, unafraid to slow things down when required (and also fully prepared to let the throttle out when the time is right), to pare things back so that the moment when everything kicks in hits, it sends you skidding across the room.
And the band’s voracious appetite doesn’t end with the wide range of musical styles they’ve incorporated into unum – vocalist Leona Farrugia credits Maltese poet and playwright Mario Azzapadi, French new-wave director Éric Rohmer, Virginia Woolf, Jean-Paul Sartre, Céline Sciamma and Georges Perec as influences on lyrics that examine the tension between dreams and mundane reality, obsessing about unobtainable perfection and the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a humdrum job.
We asked the band to guide us through the album track by track.
One of the ones that started it all! We’ve sometimes internally referred to this particular song as our Rhapsody. It acts as a good cover letter of sorts for what you’re in for with the rest of the songs, which is no small feat considering the variety in tone there can be. It’s one of the first two demos that we recorded for this album, which I think reflects in the self-assuredness of the song as it progresses through sections. I remember this one being really fun to write, in a very ‘how can we escalate?’ kind of way.
As an added bonus, we see our first appearance from saxophonist Oli Genn-Bash, who will make appearances over multiple songs from this point onwards. His contribution adds a type of surrealist layer, particularly the dimension it adds to the final section!
days and nights
Compared to the last one, days and nights sees a more structurally standard pace, although it does maintain the punchiness that’s led into by the end of rohmeresse. This was actually the final addition to this album, to the point that it very nearly didn’t make the cut. Thankfully, there wasn’t too much resistance in reaching the point where it felt complete. It’s a very fun one to play and one that translates very well live, between having almost a bounce to it over the verses, as well as being quite high intensity in pretty much every other section.
a muse (in limbo)
Taking a little detour towards something along the lines of trip-hop, a muse moves towards tight rhythm and synths, amidst sung descriptors of a living space (which you may or may not recognise on the cover art). The song still retains some driven sections, of a similar drive as in the previous songs, though this song is definitely one where the underlying synths are a key player (pun intended) in the completeness of the whole thing. Also, I think the clave block is the unsung hero of this song.
This song is where we start easing off the punchiness that we’ve seen at least a little in every song prior to this one, although not not quite a fully softer song by any means. The lyrics have an intimate relationship with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a piece of media which is near and dear. Instrumentally, certain components of the song are actually adaptations from ideas from a very very long time ago that never came to be, though when we started working on this album we knew from the get go that we wanted to incorporate them.
Closing out the first half of the vinyl, the mood is brought into a more gentle place with this one. This is a song very strongly built around the imagery created by the guitars and vocals, both relating closely to a near-to-home inspiration from għana, a type of traditional Maltese folk music. We also see a reappearance of our sax friend Oli here, where he completes the tonal climax the song builds to before it fades back away again.
le saut du pigeon
The pigeon hop – a take on an interlude that takes a bit of a breath from the heavy imagery of some of the other songs. It very much started from having a really solid base between the bass and the drums which was then only embellished further with all the other layers. Once again, we see an appearance of our wonderful saxophonist where he joins in as layer near fully aligns for a brief moment, before drifting back off into the familiarity of the opening section of this interlude.
a reprise (that girl)
a reprise changes gears after the last track by bringing in some straightforward high energy guitars. The instrumentation of this one started as almost goofing off in the studio, but of course it ended up being persistent enough to stick around. I am of the (perhaps biased) opinion that same instrumentation pairs well with the lyrical addressing of the eternal comparison that we find ourselves doing, particularly under modern circumstances. The high tempo of it all persists to the end, which sees us through some choppy chords to end the track with a bang!
We’ve now reached a point where the psych-based inflections are more apparent. This might be the song with the longest verse we’ve ever done! It never strays far from the core guitar melody (which every other instrument adopts at varying points over the song) whilst also being an exercise in still showing progression via all the different layers denoting every section change.
A fun piece of trivia – this is the only song to retain its working title! I don’t think any other name would’ve done better to suit the western swagger throughout the song. It serves as a good exercise in dynamism, with the rhythm being quite constant for a good section of the song and only indicating change in how they’re being played. The song then closes off on a sort of crescendo/decrescendo, which features some artful weaving of the saxophone when the intensity is at its peak.
the sister of
The final stretch! This and the song that follow this set the tone that we’ll be leaving this album on. Trying to be as encapsulating as possible, I’d say it hits a certain note of introspection, though perhaps if you look in enough you might find some hope..
Something I am proud of with this one is that, especially towards the end, we managed to keep some type of coherence amongst a fair few layers, without detracting from the presence of any of them.
the merchant of
And now we’ve come full circle with the second of the two earliest tracks – this one is near and dear to me because the little bass melody in the beginning was with me for a good while before it became a song. Luckily an absent-minded noodle won everyone over enough that it became this really engaging venture into a bit of a dramatic approach to melancholia. The lyrical content of this one talks through the menial existence of working in a service based occupation, an existence that a lot of us have existed through the lows of.
One of my favourite aspects of this song is the layers present in its ending, closing the entire album out on ambient guitar layers alongside a couple of gentle but final melodies that slow to a close.
unum is out now on Liminal Collective. Buy and stream now from all of the usual places.
Find out more on ĠENN‘s official website
Interview by Paul Maps
Photograph by Jordan Core