Imogen Heap has always been one for technology. Nobody else could make robotic vocals and a keytar into such a tearjerker (Hide and Seek - later ruined by Jason Derulo). 'Sparks', though, is her most outlandish album yet. And for Heap, that's saying something.
Locational influences range from the River Thames (pianistic opener You Know Where To Find Me) to the Himalayas (the evocative Climb To Sakteng) and the Chinese city of Hangzhou (the collision of ancient past and electronic present in Xizi She Knows), whilst sound effects include a dishwasher door, a Bhutanese dranyen (a lute-like string instrument), and "the words of a crumbling wall to 700 fans' voices" - according to the press release. Weird.
Then there's The Listening Chair. Inspired by an actual chair in which people were recorded responding to the question "what is the song that still needs to be written?", Heap composed a piece divided into five one minute sections that each represent seven years of her life. And it's not even finished - every seven years she'll continue to add another minute of song. Ultimately, though, it's little more than an interesting conceit. Of more emotional value is Lifeline, a crowd-sourced piece written as a response to the Sendai earthquake. In particular, the album is full of asian influences, owing to the amount of worldwide travelling Heap has done over the lengthy course of writing.
Fans will already recognise a number of the tracks on 'Sparks'. The excellent soundscape of Propellor Seeds was first released way back in 2011, whilst Telemiscommunications appeared on Deadmau5's 2012 album 'album title goes here' (though you can hardly pick out his input). The Listening Chair also debuted in 2012 at the Proms.
Clearly, then, 'Sparks' has been a labour of love, but somewhere along the way Heap appears to have forgotten about songwriting. There are some truly amazing sounds - the buoyancy of Me The Machine, the subtle layers of Propellor Seeds, the electrifying juxtapositions of Xizi She Knows - but for the most part she's far too concerned with technological wizardry and unique futuristic concepts to actually write a pop hook. Run-Time is a rare exception as it bubbles and froths before a pulsating final section. Combining her trademark breathy vocals with pop electronica, this is the Heap we know and love.
Individually there are some interesting songs full of intellectualism and creatively layered sonic textures, but the ideas are too disparate to come together as a cohesive album. This may be Heap's most ambitious album to date, but it's not her most musically satisfying. It's just too clever.
* You Know Where To Find Me
* Xizi She Knows
Listen: 'Sparks' is released on the 18th August.