Niagara - Apologia
by Tom Graham
Apologia, the latest album from Portuguese electronic trio Niagara on the Lisbon-based label, Principe Discos, opens with the muffled twinkling of a keyboard and a wobbling looped melody. The track, França, also contains the distorted voice of Donald Duck. Niagara’s Bandcamp page reads as: “The Donald Duck voice during "França" seems to be adapting to this new world of Niagara. But once you go through the portal, it's all sunshine and ocean surf.” This sense of journeying into the unknown captures an important element of the foundations of Principe Discos – just as the peculiar yelps of Donald Duck seem disconnected from his usual world, Principe Discos represents a heritage based on relocation and shifting identities.
Principe Discos’ primary output is batida, an umbrella term that encompasses a collection of dance music strains like kuduro, zouk and tarrachinha. Kuduro’s history is significant in particular. Born in Luanda, Angola in the 1980s, it fuses 4/4 house and techno with frantic and agitated African percussion samples. As Angolan citizens migrated to Lisbon in the 2000s at the end of the Angolan Civil, so too did Kuduro. This geographical and cultural upheaval manifests itself in the often claustrophobic, yet dynamic feel of the music, such as on the chaotic and breakneck speed of DJ Marfox’s 2685-2686. Principe Discos’ aim is to spread the music brewing in Lisbon’s housing projects beyond their physical confines:
“We want to make sure that the amazing work being produced here, be it house, techno, kuduro, batida, kizomba, funana, tarrachinha or any other new aesthetic development, will not remain unheard outside of our clubs, cellphones and homes anymore”
Apologia builds on this sense of letting the outside world step inside the musical spaces created by urban Afro-Portuguese communities. However, it steps back from the fierce and panicked image that previous releases have portrayed, instead creating a far weirder, mysterious collection of sounds. On Siena, the album’s strongest track, a beautiful flute sings over simple, hollowed percussion while wonky synth lines oscillate in the background. Niagara show their dexterity in creating peculiar, hypnotic riffs elsewhere on the album, such as on 6:30. The track’s slow, chugging drums feel disconnected from the irregular squelches of the melody – the descending sequence repeats infinitely, making the listener feel as though they are falling even further down Niagara’s rabbit hole, and into even more obscure spaces.
Central to the album is its juxtaposition between the odd and the ambient. Graffiti’s long, sleepy pads feel like a spacey lullaby, while Via Garibaldi’s chimes sound like something from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II. The incomprehensible vocal loop on Via Garibaldi, however, ensures that the pervasive sense of weirdness still remains, like a blissful yet bizarre acid trip.
The only downside of Apologia is its conciseness – only 2/13 of its tracks are longer than 5 minutes, while most clock in at around 2/3 minutes. On first listen, it’s frustrating that the album’s moods aren’t allowed to build further, or even sit still for a longer amount of time. Yet, you eventually begin to see Apologia as less of a singular, vast metropolis like Principe’s other releases evoke. Instead, it serves as a collection of quirky, sometimes blissful patterns, each a doorway leading to a different part of the vibrant world of Niagara.
Favourite Tracks: Siena, Via Garibaldi, 6:30
Words by Tom Graham