Essential albums: Seb Taylor

UK composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Seb Taylor sets a benchmark in downtempo electronica, offering variety, inspiration and originality in spades. He has multiple personalities and monikers, most notably the melodic world beat of Kaya Project and the more experimental electronica mashups of Hibernation.

Seb Taylor

country of origin:

Lounge, chillout, trip hop, nu jazz, experimental, electronica, tribal

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases as Kaya Project:

  • Walking Through (2004, Interchill)
  • Elixer (2005, Interchill) 
  • The Ambient Mixes (2014, Tribal Shift Records)
  • Up From The Dust (2018, Tribal Shift Records)

as Hibernation:

  • Some Things Never Change (2008, Aleph Zero)
  • Second Nature (2012, Interchill)

as Seb Taylor:

  • Collected Downtempo volume 1 (2013, Tribal Shift Records)
  • Collected Downtempo volume 2 (2015, Tribal Shift Records)
  • Collected Downtempo volume 3 (2015, Tribal Shift Records)

Reviewed by Mike G

Downtempo instrumentals in the electronic dance world come in a plethora of styles and sounds, as diverse as the scenes that spawned them. Like any other dance sub-genre, downtempo is also a category where you’ll find a good deal of rubbish; lazy by-the-numbers machine music and Ibiza chillout dross, lacking any real human input or inspiration.

UK composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Seb Taylor sets a benchmark in downtempo electronica, offering variety, inspiration and originality in spades. He has multiple personalities and monikers, most notably the melodic world beat of Kaya Project and the more experimental electronica mashups of Hibernation.

Kaya Project albums

Kaya Project shows Taylor's most accessible side; expertly crafted world beat, strongly rhythmic and melodic, that's sometimes instrumental and sometimes full-blown songs. This is not sample-based electronica; Taylor employs acoustic guitars, strings, piano, synths, various guest singers and players, and draws on a virtual museum of exotic and traditional instruments from around the globe.

There is a drift after the mid-2000's towards song-orientated albums; fine if that's your bag, but the most distinctive Kaya Project releases are the predominately instrumental ones, where any vocals are not in English and emphasise texture over words.

That includes Walking Through (2004) and Elixer (2005), two sensual and intelligent albums of laid-back tribal and trip hop loops with folksy and ethno-pop melodies. Taylor's bright acoustic guitar gives some tracks an extra dimension, and he has a real knack for mash-ups like the blend of swampy slide guitar and Indian vocals on "Ghasi Ram Blues". Taylor is as much on the path of refinement as he is discovery; these albums don't startle with innovation, so much as stimulate attentive ears with lots of nice little touches and some exceptionally polished musicianship.

The Ambient Mixes (2014) is a collection of newly crafted versions of tracks from various Kaya albums up to that point. Given the sheer musicality of the source material and the versatility of its creator, it's not surprising that The Ambient Mixes works so well. Most of the overt drum tracks are gone and all kinds of nuances emerge in their place. The 12 tracks are loopy, hypnotic, and super lush; often light in mood but occasionally shifting into darkness and shadow. The harmonic progressions are exceptionally strong and the siren-like wordless vocals of guests like Natasha Chamberlain exude a newly haunting power, especially next to the lush Indian strings of "Dust Devil" and "Saranghi Breaks". The biggest revelation is how Balearic it all sounds in reworked form; imagine the best Cafe Del Mar album since DJ Jose Padilla's classic early entries in the series. But it doesn't matter whether its images of Ibiza's aqua-blue water or the deserts of the Indian subcontinent that come to mind; for lovers of lush and mysterious exotica, The Ambient Mixes is absolutely first-rate chillout.

Up From The Dust (2018) contains the strongest new Kaya material since Elixer and finds his brand of downtempo global exotica undiminished, even in a now-crowded subgenre. Wrapped around his liquid poly-rhythmic grooves you’ll hear Arabic and Celtic-sounding strings and flutes, Indian tablas, jangling ouds, glittering acoustic guitars and more. It's familiar combo, yet again there is something magic here. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think it comes from his enormous dual talents as both a physical musician and electronic craftsman. Such talent attracts first-rate collaborators, too, especially his guest vocalists on this album who sing in a variety of exotic tongues and chants, all soul and texture because who cares about actual words (not me).

Hibernation albums

Seb Taylor's Hibernation moniker is a different take on downtempo compared to the smooth world beat he releases as Kaya Project. It's still a loungey electro-acoustic sound, but these downtempo mashups are more adventurous, showing just how innovative and playful modern lounge can be.

The deep joy of the debut album Some Things Never Change (2008) is that Taylor experiments and innovates in a space where melody and accessibility are not outlawed. For most mortal musicians, juggling both innovation and convention without making a mess of things can be fiendishly difficult. Yet he has managed it, and it's this sometimes incredible poise that makes his Hibernation output truly special. Some Things Never Change is lounge music of a sort, built on slow-motion funk and the more tuneful strains of contemporary jazz, often swimming in a retro 60's/70's Euro soundtrack ambience. "Trickle" starts as a brooding spy theme but surprises with flourishes of heavenly harp and soulful wordless female vocals. "Empty Cities" is cloaked in a cinematic haze, a tuneful nu jazz piece with a dark edge. The album's prettiest moment is "Beautiful Sky", a bassline-driven breakbeat rolling beneath a gorgeous, panoramic landscape of floating keyboards.

If Some Things Never Change tickles your synapses then you're ready for more. The second Hibernation album Second Nature (2012) is equally brilliant but stranger. It's more synthetic sounding and the terrain is rougher due to a slightly higher level of distortions, glitches and grungy grooves. It's so diverse that about the only category you could file it under is electronica. "Knowledge and Spirit", for example, mashes up squalls, whoops and fluttering electronic textures with with jazzy trumpet and lovely flute lines. Taylor packs a lot of detail into these tracks; a dense, meaty groove like "The Fallen Sound" would end up vague, tuneless or just plain unlistenable in lesser hands. They key is a certain restraint: lots to look at, but all there for a reason. Listen closely, listen often, and Second Nature's sonic details offer deep and lasting pleasures.

The Collected Downtempo series

Nearly all of Seb Taylor's different pseudonyms are featured across the three stellar volumes of the Collected Downtempo series released between 2013 and 2015. This includes Kaya Project and Hibernation, but also Digitalis, Shakta and other names that some fans may never have heard of.

Once again, these albums show a fine musician (guitar, piano, synths) and an often adventurous programmer, producer and sound designer. His considerable reach rarely seems to exceed his grasp; these albums span warm dub, crunchy breaks, trip hop, ethno ambient, exotic lounge and odd techno hybrids and he excels at them all. There’s always a sense that he’s trying to make the sounds his own and not follow the crowd. The electronica collected here spans nearly 15 years but there are no obvious technological markers showing the age of individual tracks, at least not to my non e-musician ears. Soak in it, nod you head to it, dance to it, be challenged by it; this is intelligent chilling. Downtempo beats don’t come any more vital.

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