Ross From Friends - Family Portrait
by Christian Jones
Family portrait is the first full-length outing from Felix Weatherall, aka Ross From Friends. One of the host of DJs and producers emerging from the Lo-Fi scene that has grown up over the past few years, Felix comes armed with a moniker ironically referencing the 90s and a rack full of vintage hardware. He has earned acclaim for records such as ‘Talk To Me You’ll Understand’ and ‘Crystal Catcher (weed)’, their warm, hazy sounds a perfect summation of the Lo-Fi movement whilst imbued with his own compositional ability. Early EPs are notable for their melodic dexterity but rough production, something this new album has aimed change: Weatherall reportedly pulled up to 20 hour days in the studio. Family Portrait functions therefore as a moment of reflection on the past, heralding a refinement of the now ubiquitous sound alongside skills honed over these hours of studio time whilst attempting to push both himself and his sound forwards. Nostalgia-infused sounds of the past are excavated in an exploration of a family history deeply entwined with dance music, with ideas carried delicately upwards into the light thanks to the newfound technical ability of their creator.
The album is firmly retrospective, albeit augmented by moments of glisteningly futuristic production. Nowhere is the feeling of looking both forwards and backwards communicated as powerfully as the introductory track ‘Happy Birthday Nick’: Initial stutters and a familiar low-end haze give way to a surging climax, crisply executed and with vocal stabs of Lanark-Artefaxian descent. The track feels like a statement both of potential and intent but these are benchmarks untouched by an album that can feel formulaic and underdeveloped in places. In placing such a strong emphasis on the past, it feels as though Weatherall’s recent history and success in the Lo-Fi movement overwhelm some of his more daring ideas. The follow-up to the opener, ‘Thank God I’m A Lizard’, is a mellow beast, immediately stepping back from the precipice into the more comfortable territory of faded vocal samples and chugging drums. The lush forestry of sounds and instrumentation cannot obscure the underdeveloped progression, which culminates in cacophonous and unfocused saxophone improvisation.
‘Wear Me Down’ follows, and for all the lovely burial-esque vocal manipulation it too feels simply too similar to previous work by Felix to feel worthy of fulfilling the potential the album occasionally bares. When the beats fade out, as often happens midway through, and the arrangement can breathe, those hours in the studio start to feel like they are paying off. Gulps of oxygen inflate the already airy melody and raise it to new heights replete with the artificial chatter of birds up amongst the clouds. The heft of the returning drums brings the song back down to earth. Coming later in the track listing, ‘Back Into Space’ acts as the deserved counterpart here, fulfilling the cyclical nature of the album as this uplifting pathway is fully realised. Delicate pads gyrate as the song rises up into the heavens, yet as the pinnacle of the album it feels cut short.
‘The Knife’ at least shows experimentation in its use of half time and a varied tempo to really elaborate on the slow, methodical movement underpinning the albums undulations. Later in ‘Parallel Sequence’ are the moods of precursors released with more exuberance, synth lines allowed to go full haywire as they glide all over the staccato beat below. The palette of the album is however at this point established, and is disappointingly thin in compositional variance even if the number of different samples and vocals used is vast in its range and depth. Felix does kick his energy into a new gear on ‘Project Cybersyn’ and ‘R.A.T.S’ though, more club-focused cuts that transform the dragging denial of earlier songs into a humming power, a turbocharged melody ready to ascend through the smog of samples at opportune moments. Where thin and sometimes repetitive synths had represented weakness, here they demonstrate restraint as their climaxes are managed perfectly.
The emotional core of the album resides in the titular ‘Family Portrait’ and follow-up ‘Pale Blue Dot’. The former is another slightly plodding exploration of sonic texture, and unfortunately is as unfocused as the album as a whole. It is as exquisitely explorative both in its slow tempo and grating vocal processing but acts alongside its namesake in signposting untapped potential. ‘Pale Blue Dot’ demonstrates Weatherall’s talent for melody once more, but as before it feels stretched over rolling percussion that does little to elevate the track. It fits perfectly over the video, and at its best evokes the journey that Weatherall’s father undertook with his travelling soundsystem in the 80s, epic enough to seem like a voyage and yet intimate in its warbling imperfection. The tragedy is that without the video, the music feels slightly aimless and begins to take the form more of a score. It’s this sentiment that has had other critics praise the album’s ability to work ‘both on train rides and the dance floor’ but it feels more like it falls down the gap between the train and the platform edge.
‘Family Portrait’ acts for the listener as a portrait of Weatherall himself at this point. It has allowed him to give a glimpse of technical chops and skilful arrangement to come, accentuated by his trademark style of fashioning short and sweet melodies that will worm their way deep into your ears. Yet as a means of reflecting the eclectic space it seems his parents occupy, it doesn’t feel fully fleshed out. Hints of something more remain just that, and whilst it is a technically stunning work in many regards, I feel the best is yet to come from Ross From Friends. Unlike ol’ Dave Schwimmer he's on an upwards trend ☹
Favourite tracks: Back Into Space, Happy Birthday Nick, R.A.T.S
Words by Christian Jones