Heap’s latest project has been over three years in the making, since she began to solicit “found” sounds from fans back in March 2011, and songs, as well as videos, from Sparks have been seeing release since then. Finally, in 2014, Heap has coalesced all of the tracks into a daring, experimental, melodic, and sometimes just plain weird, whole. Sparks merges melodic pop, electronics, moody balladry, and found sounds both from her fans and from her travels, all driven by Heap’s distinctive breathy voice.
The album starts in a relatively straightforward manner with “You Know Where to Find Me,” a beautifully realized piano-dominated ballad, and “Entanglement,” with its jittery electronic beat melding distorted string arrangements and the subtle use of found sounds.
The third song on the album, “The Listening Chair” has Heap using all sorts of vocal sounds—popping, humming, trilling, and such—to build a repetitious, chant-like, almost minimalistic song with lyrics as elliptical as the music: “I find myself gazing out of the window for no reason/When did I stop eating bread… and cheese? I love cheese/I want to have children,/But I don’t want to have children, you know?”
Sparks also features two instrumental tracks, including “Cycle Song,” which is reminiscent of several of Can’s “Ethnological Forgery Series” songs in that it uses folk motifs and instruments to create a contemporary pastiche. The other instrumental, “Climb to Sakteng” is almost ambient in its use of subdued piano and percussion, along with Heap’s wordless vocals.
Among the standout tracks of this album is “Telemiscommunications,” a collaboration with deadmau5 that previously appeared on his 2012 release, Album Title Goes Here. The song vividly chronicles the fractured and distracted nature of contemporary life and the difficulties of maintaining connections: “Where are you I cant really hear you?/A taxi, distracted/Anyway, you… you were saying/Wait, ah, now, they’re waving me over/Can I call you back?”
The sense of lost connections and the difficulty of maintaining a stable sense of self is one of the major themes of Sparks, and is reflected especially in the chilling, creepy, spoken-word piece “Neglected Space.” Heap’s voice moves from electronically distorted to natural as she intones the words over spare, impressionistic synths: “Oh… I’m a story in mourning, and you’re the author/So pour out your masterpiece./Entropy increasing, how long before I’m dust?/Can we discuss?”
Space and place are important frameworks for Heap’s album because so much of the inspiration comes from the place-specific sounds she used as building blocks for the songs. “Xizi She Knows,” for example, was created when Heap was in Hangzhou, China, and two songs, “Neglected Space,” and “You Know Where to Find Me,” stem from London-based recordings.
While Heap doesn’t abandon traditional song structures on Sparks, its concept means that Heap is more interested in texture and atmosphere, which would make the album difficult going for listeners more accustomed to pop.
However, Heap’s abilities as a composer are such that the album rewards careful, repeated listening, especially on headphones since many of the tracks on Sparks are often densely-layered soundscapes as much as they are songs. As if to underscore the importance of sound and texture for the album, the deluxe version of Sparks consists of simply the instrumental tracks of all of the songs. While perhaps not essential, the instrumental version of the album effectively showcases Heap’s attention to sonic detail—and would sound great, probably not coincidentally, in a mix with deadmau5’s while(1<2)