A chameleonic pioneer at the forefront of Chengdu’s live electronic counterculture – Wu Zhuoling’s zen-spaced new album sends chillwaves to the head and the heart.
Our planet rose towards the sky – its fragile core enveloped by layers of slow-forming crust. As midnight rolled by, we watched the paint dry. Plastering a gigantic balloon with white house paint requires a dogged combination of patience, determination and gung-ho. Luckily for us, Zhuoling is all of the above.
It was in the autumn of 2016 that I formed my earliest connections with the Chengdu producer, largely centred around the old NU SPACE – a sleek 200-capacity concrete box in Qingyang – whose sound-proofing, screens and soundsystem made it the optimal test zone for hands-on audio-visual experimentation – a place we recognised a shared zeal (or starry-eyed idealism), bound by the pursuit of a great show.
This ambitiously impractical prop was created for a cosmic double bill featuring her band Wednesday’s Trip, with Mao Mao a.k.a. Heling on guitar, and Dizzy Love – the side project of long-time friend Joshua Love from Proximity Butterfly. In the end, only a few dozen people turned up, but we marvelled as our planet radiated in the light.
A few months earlier, Zhuoling demoed the beginnings of her new solo project as a warm-up for Icelandic folk duo Pascal Pinon on the opening night of the venue, comprised of Scandinavian touring musicians JFDR and Farao.
Rewind a little further – and she can be seen materialising from the haze at .TAG, a 21st floor sky-high dancefloor, up from the now-extinct American Consulate – where as one of the first non-DJs to appear at the club in the mid 2010s, she began casting lines for the live scene to intersect with the wild, qiqiu-fuelled joyride of the Poly Centre – a valorised golden era of Chengdu party lore.
This shift from the livehouse to the club is where her next phase began to take shape.
Zhuoling has always moved to her own tempo – slow and steady with a gradual ascent. Cycling through incarnations as a rock guitarist, folk singer, soundtrack composer and dance music producer since emerging in the woozy heyday of the late-90s downtown music scene, her output is one irrevocably synced to an earnest exploration into the possibilities of performance and production.
Another Shore is an urban excursion to a cosmic coastline – where bubbling synth leads, meticulous drum sequencing and deep undercurrents of dubby sub-bass come together with calming propulsion – featuring enough digital embellishment for fans of electronica, while remaining trippy enough for the psy crowd.
While music tagged with #ambient often evokes melancholic melodies void of discernible rhythm, Zhuoling stamps her own take on the genre, hitting the sweet spot between hygge atmospherics, downtempo nostalgia and psychedelic chill-out, resulting in the producer’s most accomplished and ephemeral work to date.
The 44-year-old’s latest offering is a collection of six shimmering and expansive tracks that have formed the ambient glue of her club-trotting live set for the past three years, drawing the curious souls of the underground into the orbit of her ever-evolving sound. In the sea changes following 2019’s HALO, the remaining vestiges of her post-Y2K indie group have been cast aside, cueing a transition from lyrical singer-songwriting into a confident exposition of her depth as a producer.
Touring in perpetual pandemic performance mode, the live incubations of the record have been firmly patched into open-airs, livestreams and raves around China, but as her hardware racked up airmiles, the album felt reluctant to settle.
In late 2021, a retreat to her home studio finally saw the tracks captured for mixing and post-production, compiled into her debut vinyl release on Small Projects – the label she runs with partner Till Fornoff that has become synonymous with quirky cross-genre gig configurations around Chengdu.
The sound palette is sweeping in tone. Opening track “Midnight River” draws ears upstream with a chirping chorus of analog percs, delicately layered with twinkling Korg arpeggios and a metallic Jurassic resonance that growls and contracts through the mid-highs. Diving deeper, the warbling synths and squelching undercurrent of “Que sera sera” swim along with a curious aquatic field recording, as an echoey, delay-drenched chant invokes a dozy déjà vu.
The head-bobbing backbeat on standout track “Be” – the only track to be produced entirely in Logic – channels a ’90s UK downtempo energy with a glitchy, detuned breakbeat swinging between restrained melodic swells, featuring pitch-mangled vocal samples evocative of early Boards of Canada which could comfortably inhabit the crates of the Warp back catalogue. On the flip, “Road Trip” welcomes a medley of transport announcers and GPS voices who navigate their way through the lovely, hushed chimes of acoustic guitar and shuffling percussion, where before you know it, you’re caught in the tide and carried out to sea.
The album reaches a crescendo on title track “Another Shore”, the moment she reaches for the mic and accelerates past 120BPM, a fitting serenade to the seas of the past. “Marvellous Clouds” brings us to the shore, with delicately arranged keyboard harmonies, swinging toms and an uplifting swell towards what’s to come.
Following the luscious lullaby single “We’ll Follow the Wind” last November, the album is a prelude to the producer’s upcoming double LP of club tracks, set for release in late 2022. ☆
Another Shore, out now via Small Projects. Grip it here on Bandcamp.