Album Review: Ian Chang – 属 Belonging

[City Slang; 2020]

At what point does a musician decide to take that leap into a solo career? It’s a question most famously faced by jazzers and session musicians, and is as old as popular music itself. Electronic artists have one of the richer histories of sharing collaborators before that solo album finally drops. Ian Chang’s career is a modern example of the collaborating shapeshifter – collaborative in the sense that his list of credits is immense (aside from his role in Son Lux, he has worked with the likes of Moses Sumney and Matthew Dear, to name a couple) and shapeshifting in the sense that his style can be applied to a host of pop and electronic styles.

Six instrumentals and three vocal features make up Belonging, but only the former works consistently in Chang’s favor. At his core, Chang is an electronic percussionist, melding dizzying beats with a neoclassical bent. Dig into the world of academic, computer-based composition and you’ll find many similar sounds. His debut, Belonging attempts to provide a bridge between experimental and pop music sensibilities, but suffers greatly by trying to have it both ways.

“Drunken Fist” is the best song here. A boiler room hiss provokes a host of creeping percussion and erhu samples that could make their way into a horror film, but the overall creativity of the song trumps the frightening atmosphere. “Bird’s Tongue” is another gem, using Hanna Benn’s voice as an instrument instead of a focal point – a trick that the other collaborations on the record could have used to a great end.

The problem with the best songs on Belonging is their brevity. “Swarm” is hardly a track at all, clocking in at under one minute despite featuring one of the album’s best performances, as a treated bongo tickles the eardrums with a Zach Hill-inspired performance. But why is it so short? Stack some of the rest of the album’s beat drops or flashes on top and you’d have something really special.

Instead the song disappears to usher in “Audacious”, which features Blonde Redhead’s KAZU and suffers from poor sequencing. KAZU’s hook is one of the only memorable melodies on the record, but it almost immediately gives way to a beat break that chops the track’s elements into a skittering mess. A vocalized version of the hook then carries the song to its unceremonious end. Many of the other tracks here suffer the same fate. All the puzzle pieces are there for great songs, but the final arrangement is obtuse and incomplete. To wit, the album is barely thirty minutes long despite being packed to the brim with samples and techniques.

“Comfort Me” is even worse, adding a horrid lyric to the pile of problems: “Big lights and small minds / Yeah, you know what I mean / It’s complicated,” sings Kiah Victoria. Why would we know what the lyrics mean if it’s also complicated? The answer probably lies in the record’s title; Chang and company are trying to belong, but feel stuck between their styles, never quite giving in to one cohesive sound.

There is a beauty in attempting to belong to a community of artists, and Chang’s catalogue is evidence that his skills are in high demand. But, the question of whether or not he should go solo still stands. Chang’s production style fits well within an established genre of Brainfeeder-adjacent jazztronica, but is not as rewarding. Belonging is a neat and meticulous record that begs to be lengthened in the solo compositions, but frustrates and falters in its collaborations.