Mosaic / Music / Reviews / November 10, 2010

Emancipator // Safe in the Steep Cliffs

In an effort to keep you readers in school, I have decided to review one of my favorite albums to study or to write to. Now, because I study to it does not mean it’s bad. AU CONTRAIRE, loyal reader and listener; this album by Emancipator is delicious and will feed your head with the good vibes needed to make it through this final stretch of term. (A warning: words like “chill” and “trip-hop” will probably be used in this review. I am sorry. I will try to avoid it. I know, I know, I already used “good vibes” and “feed your head.” Kill me. Letters to the editor are open for complaints.)

In 2006, 19-year-old Emancipator, from Portland, Ore., released his amazing debut (which was slept on by too many people), “Soon It Will Be Cold Enough,” and big shots like Nujabes, the Japanese J. Dilla, and Bassnectar, dubstep deity, took notice. With his name gaining recognition and his music garnering plays all over the world, in 2009 Emancipator followed up with a more mature, more interesting album, “Safe in the Steep Cliffs,” which I have chosen to review.

Masterfully blending the organic sounds of banjo, guitar, mandolin and many other interesting choices with the trip-hop mainstays of drum-machine snare and cymbal, Emancipator has crafted 14 amazing electronic songs. Do not expect drum-heavy samples like one might find on an RJD2 track; instead, expect pleasing melodies created from layer upon layer of horns, strings and drums.

My one knock on his debut was that each song seemed to grab from the same bag of sounds as every other song on the album. Emancipator avoids the same fate on his follow-up, ranging his sounds from the Americana-esque “Old Devil,” where banjo and some of the more aggressive drums you’ll hear from the 14 songs are stacked, to “Jet Stream,” an airy, at times eerie song, driven by the most interesting percussion on the LP.

These tracks are characterized by a distinct East-meets-West feel, no doubt influenced by his time spent with the late producer Nujabes at his house in Japan. On his website, Emancipator says the song “Kamakura,” the fourth track of “Steep Cliffs,” was directly inspired by their time together.

Each song is aptly named. “Bury Them Bones” leads us along with a deep bass-line that, when doubled with some piercing violin and, later, mournful trumpet, provides an unmistakable elegiac feel. If you were to close your eyes and put on “Rattlesnakes,” you might be at once transported to the American South and East, even South Asia, with banjo buried beneath a plethora of string sounds we have come to hear as “Eastern.”

The pacing of this album is perfect for a late-night paper write. Opening track “Greenland” eases us into the album (and the night), while subsequent track “Black Lake” ramps it up in a controlled, concise way. There will be times, when listening to “Steep Cliffs,” that you will be pumped to the point of writing madness and other times where you will imagine yourself coasting down a river, notepad in hand, jotting down observations.

Album standouts include “Jet Stream,” “Old Devil” and “Bury Them Bones.”

Download both Emancipator albums at

Sam Conrad

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