Salamanda – Ashbalkum (Album Review)
Ever since the Seoul-based electronic musicians Uman Therma (aka Sala) and Yetsuby (aka Manda) were introduced by a mutual friend in 2018, the two—known collectively as Salamanda—have been crafting a finely detailed world together.
Their name comes from a drawing of a salamander that Therma made, and they titled their 2019 debut single “Our Lair”—a gentle sketch for pulsing pads and synthesized pan flute—as a nod to the imaginary amphibian’s home.
They released eight more singles in their first year, fleshing out the atmospheric contours of their musical universe with elements of ambient, classical minimalism, and Japanese kankyō ongaku, and their world-building has gotten more fanciful from there.
They framed their first EP, 2020’s Glass Cage, which they released in the early months of the pandemic, as an allegory of a bird in an invisible cage; their 2021 album Sphere was inspired by bulbous shapes—“like boiled tomatoes or planet Earth, or maybe bubbles,” Sala has said.
The common threads running through all their music so far have been its playful spirit, whimsical mood, faintly psychedelic air, and ashbalkum, released on the New York/Mexico City label Human Pitch, which makes good on all those qualities.
Its 10 tracks are built around mallet instruments, pitter-pat drums, and softly rounded synths, as luminous and smooth to the touch as a handful of beach glass.
Hiroshi Yoshimura’s meditative soundscaping is an obvious touchstone; so are the lilting, dancefloor-adjacent rhythms of ambient-techno fellow travelers like Leif and Human Pitch co-founder Tristan Arp.
Salamanda have a simple sound that they twist into a pleasing array of configurations. The opening “Overdose” is minimalist dub techno stitched together out of raindrops and sighs; “Melting Hazard” spins vibraphones and cooing voices into cotton candy-like tufts; “Rumble Bumble” loops thrumming hand drum and what might be a vocal sample from a vintage ethnographic record into a loosely woven funk.
There are no major shifts from the sound of their previous recordings, but they’ve emphasized their pointillistic tendencies in subtle but important ways: They favor crisp, cleanly delineated sounds that are suggestive of sticks hitting small, hard objects—woodblocks, chimes, xylophone—and every sound seems to float in a bubble of negative space.
Salamanda is a Seoul-based Leftfield Ambient music producer/DJ duo of Uman Therma (Sala) and Yetsuby (Manda). Salamanda believes every sound has beauty, and loves to collect and experiment with all kinds of sounds from the world around them.
*Releases 2019.10 Our Lair EP [Tonal Unity (KR)] 2020.04 Glass Cage EP [Self-Release] 2020.12 Allez LP [Good Morning Tapes (FR)] 2021.09 Sphere LP [Small Méasures (UK)]
The most noticeable difference between ashbalkum and its predecessors lies in the album’s use of vocals. Virtually every track features some kind of voice, though there’s not a single identifiable word uttered on the whole record; instead, track after track is festooned with ribbons of cooing and chirping: the trim oohs of “Melting Hazard”;
The sped-up hiccups of “Coconut Warrior,” which suggests a Boards of Canada cover band helmed by highly intelligent rodents; the pastel curlicues of “Living Hazard,” which might be an a cappella choir rubbing wineglass rims.
All these curiously treated voices—plus the feline meow of “Mad Cat Party (feat. Ringo the Cat)”—help reinforce a naive sensibility that culminates in the children’s voices and music-box plunk of the closing “Catching Tails.”
Like Aphex Twin and Nobukazu Takemura, Salamanda intuit the ways that electronic music’s lysergic tendencies can be re-routed to capture a spirit of childlike wonder.