Katie Gately is an LA-based producer and sound designer by trade, and her fascination with strange noises, sourced both from her surroundings and the malleability of her own voice, has been documented in a string of low-key releases over the last few years. On some tracks, she would meditate on and structure a song around set of sounds from a certain environment, like the bouncing basketballs and squeaky shoes of “Dead Referee.” On others, such as “Pivot,” she would string hook after vocal hook together with no attempt at approximating a pop song structure, organically transforming the track’s mood as she showcased her seemingly infinite musical turns of phrase over the course of more than ten minutes; “Pipes” accomplished the same feat using only manipulations of her voice to create the backdrop to her melodies.
On Color, her debut album for the forward-thinking experimental and electronic label Tri Angle, Gately arrives with a newfound sense of focus, despite overflowing with even more ideas than before. The first few seconds of opener “Lift” threaten computer-manipulated chaos: cut-up stony thuds are rhythmically interrupted by a scrambled, pitch-shifted voice and what sounds like a slowed down car horn, almost a dare to a wary newcomer to continue listening. But as Gately adds her voice to the mix in a call-and-response and with a chorus effect, and more percussive elements fill in around the vocal hooks, the song transforms into a sort of cartoonish James Bond overture. Conspiratorial horns slither around slammed-door snares, and Gately is never content with leaving one vocal line at a time, but rather layers countermelodies at almost every moment of the song, as well as increasing the complexity of the lead melody.
Despite the initially overwhelming amount of aural detail, Gately’s knack for compelling rhythms keeps you nodding along. Lead single “Tuck” is anchored by a deep and danceable four-on-the-floor beat with more conventional tom-tom sounds but features Gately toying almost goofily with the quality of her own voice, altering her singing style into a nasal scold or a troubled cry to suggest a change in character or mood, not unlike Kate Bush’s literary role-playing. She shifts from gentle bouncing harmonies to a percussive chopped and screwed effect, as she introduces new melodies and more layers of thundering percussion and meandering horns as the song progresses, towering into a monster of arrangement prowess. Metallic orchestra hits kick off “Sift,” which takes Gately’s nightmare pop to its logical extension: it careens from haunted synth carnival to thumping industrial playground as Gately warns she’s “Looking for a place to put you down underneath this deep dark ground.” But again, her propulsive rhythms hold the track together, chugging along like a rickety rollercoaster as she waxes melodic and shreds her voice to digitized bits, recalling Holly Herndon’s stuttering cyborg soundscapes.
The overstuffed sound banks, restless tendency toward development, and dramatic tension lend the album overall a cinematic quality, each song containing its own plot twists and recurring elements and themes. After the borderline frightening energetic build of the first three tracks, “Rive” seems to offer a respite in terms of tempo, but Gately’s ghostly, reversed backup vocals and winding saxophones transform this dark ballad into an unsettling portrait of an abandoned neighborhood. “Frisk,” the only entirely major key song, updates and digitizes the classic alt-rock quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, jolting from softly intoned, relaxing melodies over shuffling mid-90s Björky beats in the verse, to Gately’s howl of “Where were ya when I needed ya?” competing for the listener’s attention with the manic thump of a hydraulic press. By the end of the track, a choir of Gately harpies is barely audible over the factory atmosphere, pairing her most uplifting, sticky melody with her most cacophonous clatter.
“Sire” launches into a nighttime chase scene (“Oceans between us, and you can’t hide from me”) with twinkling bells accenting Gately’s wordless calls and alternating with the sound of cannon blasts, then explodes without warning into an almost joyous second half, her soaring vocals and jarring beats evoking a fireworks show. The closing title track comes closest in length to tracks from Gately’s previous, unchecked exquisite corpse style, but the spooky waltz unfolds gradually and logically into a looming mesh of hearty vocals, sighing brass, and creaking ropes and boards, a pirate ship of sound strolling in and out of earshot over the course of almost ten minutes. Its cyclical, slow-burning melody smacks of folk songs handed down generations, a testament to Gately’s skill for writing tunes out of time.
While certainly a grower, if only for the sheer sensory overload, Color is incredibly rewarding upon repeated listens. Gately’s pop songwriting ability allows her to push the envelope of accessibility while never making her music feel truly impenetrable, and the singularity of her sound ensures it will still sound cutting-edge for years to come. Every minor key moment is suffused with suspense, urgent or unsettling, and each burst into major key feels positively triumphant. Few other records this year convey such fully realized, captivating, and cohesive worlds of song.