Imager starts off light. Not carefree-bubblegum-love-affair light, but not dark-machinations-put-to-reverb light either. The most recent conjuring of London-based artist Barbarossa (aka James Mathé) begins slight, but not buoyant, showcased in its titular track that reads something like a table of contents: soft-spoken, reverb-and-delay-heavy vocals often venturing into falsetto, paired with electronic instrumentation (light and tight percussion, blips of the mechanical and wavering, almost ghostly synths) that, while occasionally sparse, is unafraid to grow layered, wrapped equally in murky reflection and accessibility. It’s not exactly an uncommon thread, but if nothing else, it’s handled “effectively.” Mathé has a bit of an ethereal, even dainty voice that might be off-putting to some, but he’s never off the mark or out of place. Similarly, while focusing a bit too much on the intangible atmosphere it’s trying to create, Imager does have moments where it shows that it has production potential beyond a simple glossy finish – something that, in this particular market, is a bit of a rarity in and of itself.
The problem comes with the pratfalls of over-compression, used here like many of its peers, as a compensatory measure, but it ironically drains some of the life from the recording as a result. What elevates the production in the title track, as in much of the album, is the counteracting quality that drives its creative heart: clever, unexpected sound design. Not so unexpected that anyone would claim it’s “experimental,” but enough that it’s possible to buy the delicate, grandiose visions it inspires. One key element of this is the album’s solemn belief that “music is in the space between notes.” The spaces drag on a little longer than expected, and are implemented in a surprisingly diverse way as well. On the title track, the spaces are largely between vocal lines, while the kick drum is still playing, resulting in a “dragged out” feeling. By contrast, in the second song, “Home,” the high-pass strings in the background end just a little too soon before transitioning to the next note, putting a space between them, and giving it a nearly antithetical feeling of glitchyness mostly absent otherwise in (especially) the first and final thirds.
Mathé didn’t necessarily do this for artistic purposes – pretty much every budding electronic artist with a shitty rig has to deal with this at some point or another, and you could argue that James Mathé just didn’t think out the dragging effect it would have on the vocals. However, considering that many of the tracks feature strings, it’s at least a notable inclusion. Regardless of the reasoning, it works exceptionally well here because the atmosphere itself is working so hard in its own direction. In the case of the former, it fits perfectly, while in the latter, it’s a well-deserved respite and an intelligent contradiction of the album’s fragility. It’s here where the strength of the album is greatest, in the interplay between its atmosphere and the slight deviations that change its interpretation.
While this is especially notable in the first third, and for that reason Imager is a bit front-loaded, it’s sprinkled throughout. It should also be mentioned that though the album is keen on certain ideas and atmospheres, it’s not entirely unwilling to be adventurous; the album is, in fact, something of a sandwich of tones, with the middle, starting at “Settle,” offering a slightly more direct approach to the ideas introduced in the first three tracks, before returning to the lighter final three. The distinction is modest but distinct, and while at first it seems like there might be some significant variation (the transition from “Solid Soul” to “Settle,” the odd but inspired intro to “Dark Hopes”) in the end it’s a small, safe development. Unfortunately, this also translates to it going out in a whisper, and not the interesting, contradictory kind of earlier.
Nothing fundamental in the album’s construction is inherently to its disadvantage. The lightness of it all is fine in the end as everything is well-conceived to support that structure, and even the more direct portions at least offer something in the way of development. For all its points of excellence, Imager is ultimately tempered with inklings of limitation barring it from becoming something greater. The inconsistency of divergent passages and elements, unwillingness to devote itself entirely to brooding introspection or pop confection, and wearing itself thin of ideas halfway through (slightly more than half, actually – the cutoff point for radically new material is extremely clear after “Dark Hopes”) keeps the album from becoming spectacular, but not from being worthwhile.