For a debut album, Marcus Whale's Inland Sea is remarkably assured and risk-taking. Following his ongoing work as a member of Black Vanilla and Collarbones, Whale's solo debut is a deeper and more personal exploration of visceral and often strange sonic landscapes. Combining hard hitting beats with swelling, sonorous textures, Inland Sea is a thrilling collision of aggression and sensuality.
There is a taut, mechanical element to this album heavily inspired by techno, but Whale also repurposes and re-contextualises pieces of industrial music in the droning trombones, violin and cello that repeatedly appear, R&B and hip-hop in the skittering hi-hats and Whale's languid, piercing vocals, and shape-shifting minimalism in the open-ended song structures.
On Inland Sea, Whale is not concerned with hooks or riffs, or on songs in the traditional sense. He uses stretches of silence and swells of sound as signifiers. As per its title, the record reflects inwardly on the self, and drifts like a vast ocean. This is music for solitary and dedicated listening. Even the most physical tracks, like the single "Vapour" or the clattering closer "Blood Moon," feel as if they'll slip away if you don't take hold of them.
On top of this defiantly original sound, Whale explores himself and how he relates to the world. In confronting terms he confers with his ethnicity, his gender and his sexuality. His lyrics rest on suggestion and softly-spun metaphor, but there is a force to them, and a bluntness to his delivery that makes them tangible. On first single "My Captain" he submits, with ironic overtones, to a mysterious figure who will "bore through my skin and change my face and change my name."
There is sustained tension and release across Inland Sea. A more physical opening, characterised by pounding, metallic textures, gives way to a stretch in the middle of the record that is lighter and softer. A vocal appearance from fellow Sydney electronic artist Rainbow Chan on "1888" is at once both beautiful and dark with its talk of golden skin used as currency. Across its length, the record feels like a panoramic view that transcends time and place.
Inland Sea is a long and demanding album that will not be to everyone's tastes. At times Whale's vocal performance feels slightly monotonous, lacking in the light and shade that makes his productions so thrilling. The gradually morphing, fascinatingly complex arrangements of tracks like "Milk" and particularly "A White Blanket" with its swirling string arrangement feel almost undercut by a certain disconnect with his performance.
Overall, Marcus Whale has shown remarkable restraint and sensitivity in bringing together different shards of experimental music and combining them in such striking ways. This is experimental music that has the pull of pop music. His compositional maturity is astonishing, as is the uncompromising and poetically visceral nature of his lyrics. Inland Sea is a forward-thinking and innovative record that, though it is not perfect, is delivered without an ounce of pretence.
Inland Sea is out on digital formats, or a special limited-edition book version on Friday June 10th. Marcus Whale is launching the album at Newtown Social Club on Friday July 15th.