Review: Howie Lee – ‘Birdy Island’
Howie Lee was already a fascinating artist before this record. For over a decade, the Beijing-raised musician has been creating a distinctively Chinese take on electronic music, in his own music, with his Do Hits collective, and in impeccably crafted and often mind-frazzling audiovisual collaborations, such as with the artist Teom Chen. His records have been varied, but never anything less than remarkable.
Variously influenced by his time living in London in the 2000s, visiting clubs like FWD>> (one of the most important crucibles in the evolution of dubstep, grime and bass music), and by Californian “beat scene” artists like Flying Lotus, Lee’s connections are obvious and direct: he’s released for Shanghai’s radical SVBCVLT label and remixed artists like Lafawndah, the late SOPHIE, and hyper-pop nexus Charli XCX.
On each of his projects, he’s deliberately used Chinese instrumentation and tuning, and made reference to Chinese history and culture, both past and present. This has led to immensely successful fusions – but for the most part, his records have sounded like a Chinese take on internationalist electronic forms. The sounds are blended together with finesse and integrity, but the rhythmic frameworks and electronic tonalities are very much the sounds of Berlin, London and LA.
This time around, though, he has broken all the moulds. Birdy Island, which was mainly recorded in 2018 with vocals for some tracks added later, is a conceptual piece, a sci-fi vision and a carefully considered aesthetic. It’s built around a dream of an island floating in the sky, inspired variously by China’s Hainan Island (where his mother lives and he spends part of the year), Ko Chang in Thailand which he visits regularly, and a semi-imagined version of Sicily in Italy. Lee has envisaged a near-future theme park built by a Chinese investment company hoping to “re-sync” our relationship with the natural world, populated by birds and ancestral spirits.
Somehow, the totality of this semi-utopian vision has allowed him to dream up some of the most genuinely futuristic music made by anyone, anywhere this century. Chinese music—traditional, classical, ritual and populist—dominates his compositions, but these various parts, along with the electronic elements and large helpings of complex but joyous jazz-fusion, all flow into one another so completely and effortlessly that it feels like this is a future genre that has evolved organically from its sources. So while “域外花 (Foreign Flowers)” has a dubstep creepy-crawl to it, and the following “岛鸟 (Island Birdy)” has hints of dancehall and drum ’n’ bass, these aspects don’t define the tracks so much as sound like part of Lee’s own sonic language.
That language also sounds futuristic, because the sounds no longer sound electronic. Lee’s use of synthesisers is so advanced that even when their tones are alien, they sound as “real” as any flute or bowed instrument. Likewise, even his editing of sampled “real” sounds is done with such finesse and musicality that it’s no longer identifiable as a “glitch” in the usual way of electronic music, but again feels like part of a natural process. All of this places the music in an uncanny valley between real and virtual, perfectly expressing his ideas of a futurist yet natural world. Sometimes, this is blissful and dreamy as on “波、波、波 (Wave, Wave, Wave)” or the easy-listening choir of “偶像的黎明 (Dawn Of The Idols)”.
But Lee is too much of an artist to ever make just one mood dominate: the uncanniness of his future is eerie as much as it’s beautiful, and his dream utopia carries with it deep questions like any Brave New World, which are embedded into the music. All of this makes for a bizarrely easy complexity, far from daunting thanks to the inherent humour and melody, but deeply strange in the sense that no track sounds the same on second listening. At barely half an hour long, this album still carries an impossible depth that makes it seem more substantial than most works twice its length. This deserves to rank extremely high in ‘best of’ lists for 2021 and—whether it births new genres, or proves to be a one-off gem—is undeniably an album for the ages.
Cover Image: Ash Lin
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs