Raf Mantelli and Richard 'O' Smith make up the duo. There is a certain division of labour - Raf provides vocals/guitar, and 'O' the drums - but both share responsibility for the astounding array of synthesised treatments and effects in which the songs bathe and breathe. The overall impression is a kind of suspended animation, a blissful limbo.
In a fictional dream, I imagine two practice rooms, ideally within a building placed in near-future Ballardian isolation. In one room, you can play and hear only 'organic' music - there are no amps, pedals, nothing but acoustic instruments. In the other room lies every piece of electronic musical equipment imaginable - synths, samplers, sequencers, speakers. Raf and O have the keys to both rooms, and they make the music you can hear in the connecting corridor. Natural and unnatural sounds blend, clash - or sometimes simply pass each other by, hiding in the corner of one's ear.
So it's highly fitting for my SF mental wanderings that the sublime new album by Raf and O is called 'Portal'. I think it's their most sophisticated and successful exploration so far of the space between pop music - as we generally know it - and experimental electronica. At times it approaches sound-art in its willingness to take the listener beyond routine riffs and rhythms and into an aural atmosphere. One of the things I love most about the record is its unhurried confidence: every idea is given the right amount of room, no more, no less. If a song needs to glide, weightless, it does. If a rhythm is fascinating in itself, it's worked through in layers until the cycle feels complete. While if a tale can be told in under two minutes, the song stops.
The pair's particular talents are well in evidence. There's Raf's glorious and incredibly versatile voice, which seems to touch on so many possible reference points - an Italian answer to the breathy intimacy of a Gilberto or Hardy, a range to match a Björk or Kate Bush, a sinister chill calling to mind Claudia Brücken in the early days of Propaganda (that other band so obsessed with the human and mechanical)... but she never really sounds like anyone apart from herself. And there's 'O''s hyperactive percussion, seemingly fed through circuitry as if real blood was flowing through a drum machine, as crucial in the colour it adds, as much as the drive.
But throughout 'Portal', there's a sense that Raf and O also know exactly when to rein in these tendencies, and the material emerges all the stronger for it. The magnificent 'Worms' spurns vocals altogether, as 'O' kick-starts an immediate, infectious motorik beat, before the brilliantly patient, restrained build-up gradually unfolds. Two startling tracks find Raf using something close to spoken word: we hear Italian as well as English in the crisp, hazy-rap delivery of 'Drunk' where the voice provides the rhythm; while in 'Automatons', she intones science fiction imagery as 'O' (I assume!) brings the robots' metallic clang alive with brittle, scattershot strikes.
The Shakespeare setting 'Sonnet 62' must be one of the loveliest songs they've ever recorded. The arrangement is sparse and delicate, allowing the gorgeous melody to fill the space - but still decorated with flickering electronica, as if the Bard's words have broken through time thanks to some future technology.
It's very difficult to choose highlights from such a consistently winning record. David Bowie fans will lap up the cover of 'Win' (originally from 'Young Americans'). Raf and O have a deep affinity with Bowie - as one of the original musical universe makers and connoisseur of the alien - and have already covered 'Lady Grinning Soul' to great acclaim. (You can find it on the previous album, 'Time Machine'.) The fragile 'imposter soul' of 'Win' makes it a perfect fit, drifting seamlessly into the otherworldly 'Portal' aesthetic.
And in a masterstroke of sequencing - who says the album format is dead? - Raf and O include a live track, 'Echoes', towards the end of the disc. Such is 'Portal's overall restraint that this brilliant song bursts from the speakers in a sudden rush of energy, as if the 'other' soundworld has finally stormed the gateway into this - until the final song 'Magic' reins the power back in.
Speaking of seeing Raf and O live - if you're in London you have the chance to do so very soon. On Friday 22 July, they launch the album with a gig at St James the Less Church in Pimlico. To my enormous annoyance, I can't make it, but I would dearly love as many of you as possible to attend as my representatives. Excitingly, there are a range of enticing ticket deals - so please follow this link to check them out, and get along if you can. They are a superb live band - as entrancing to watch as to listen to - and it'll be fascinating to hear how they bring 'Portal' to life. I hope I get the chance to do so myself before long.
In the meantime, there's a digital EP available which previews two tracks from 'Portal', along with two collaborations with electronica legend Robert Logan (who is also playing at the album launch). Bending and shaping Raf and O's distinct sound through his own box of tricks, the Logan tracks remind the listener that, once through the portal, there's more than one possible direction of travel. For the curious, this is a very rewarding way to spend £3 - head over to Bandcamp to take action. And if you can't make the launch concert to buy the album there, you could succumb to the temptation to pre-order 'Portal' itself - the door's wide open.