Biog

Cities of Foam, Risen from the Ashes

[Article by Christine Moritz published in RE:UP]

You know those moments when you’re going through your record collection and discover a gem you’d forgotten about, or one you never realized you had?

I had one of those moments a few years ago with Blueflame’s “From Kings Cross to Walhalla” EP, a release on the Bolshi label. I’d bought it in London that spring, but couldn’t remember what it sounded like. When I put it on and sampled the upbeat, techy “Last Man Standing” and the exquisite, Eastern-tinged “Liquid Remedy,” I thought excitedly, “That’s why I bought this record!”

“Last Man Standing” made it into my DJ set that night, and “Liquid Remedy” made numerous subsequent appearances. Sadly, I couldn’t find much information about Blueflame. Earlier this year I learned that Bolshi was no more, but Blueflame had changed its name to Cities of Foam and was about to release a new single and album on Dorado. With the release of “Last Man Standing” in March and A Great Day for the Race in April, the project became the link between these two highly esteemed and much-beloved British labels.

Sarah Francis, a.k.a. Sarah Bolshi, launched her namesake label in 1996 in the scene surrounding the legendary (and legendarily hedonistic) Heavenly Sunday Social, where resident DJs the Chemical Brothers played an extraordinary mix of tunes. Over 7 years, the Bolshi label released some 49 releases by artists such as Laidback, Rasmus, and LHB.

In 2001, the label split into sublabels Bolshi Red, for breaks-oriented material, and Bolshi Blue, for melodic downtempo grooves. Blueflame’s EP “Sunday at the Rollerdisco” appeared on the latter in 2001, followed by “From Kings Cross to Walhalla” in 2002. (The Cities of Foam full-length includes the gently soulful “Safe Inside” from the first Blueflame EP, as well as “Last Man Standing” and “Liquid Remedy” from the second.) Unfortunately, Bolshi went under in 2003 after its funding was withdrawn. Sarah Bolshi now runs Sunday Best, the label founded in 1997 by Rob da Bank, currently a DJ on BBC’s Radio One.

Dorado debuted in 1992; founder Ollie Buckwell’s vision was “to create a label that mixed soul with hip-hop, jazz with beats—dance music you could listen to at home.” Notable artists on the roster included Jhelisa and Outside. The sublabel Filter came into being in 1995 to focus on more dance-oriented music by artists such as the Amalgamation of Soundz and Kid Loops.

Buckwell and Dorado were pioneers with regard to the Web and digital music. Ironically, this almost led to the label’s undoing; following 79 releases on Dorado and 47 on Filter, Universal persuaded Buckwell to become its Head of New Media in 2001. This demanding position obliged to him to put his own labels on hold, except for digital sales and distribution. A few years later, those aspects were sufficiently established for Dorado to resume new releases, starting this spring with the Cities of Foam material. Buckwell describes Cities of Foam’s work as carrying on the Dorado tradition by being “sophisticated, jazzy, soulful, [and] well-produced with great musicians.” Currently, Dorado is working on compilations from its catalogue and considering new signings.

Bridging Bolshi and Dorado is Cities of Foam, the project of Sam Menter and Todd Wills. Now based in London, the pair are originally from Bristol, where both grew up in musically-inclined families. Sam Menter’s father (who played “ersatzophone”—bathroom pipe plugged into a mouthpiece—on the Blueflame/Cities of Foam track “Liquid Remedy”) is the jazz musician and sound artist Will Menter, while Todd Wills’ father is a guitarist. Sam’s brother Ben is also a music producer; his 12-inch “Take It Back,” released this year on Leisure under the name Mr. Benn, has been praised by the likes of Quantic.

Cities of Foam draw from a number of influences; the variety of sounds on A Great Day for the Race is more diverse than one might expect from the typical “downtempo” project. In particular, in addition to organic-sounding elements like guitar, bass, saxophone, and strings, there are also synthetic-flavored ones, such as the effects-processed vocals on “Last Man Standing” and “Half Empty,” or the gritty synth of “Girls in Bars” and “Oleambi.” Wills notes that minimalist composer Steve Reich influenced his guitar sound. Both members write songs; Menter does production and programming and plays keyboards, while Wills plays bass and guitars. Menter says, “I love electronic sounds. We didn’t try to make a genre-specific album; it was more about building on various musical ideas.”

Currently the pair are working on an EP with two tracks featuring Nia Lynn, whose vocals on the album track “Out of Reach” are reminiscent of Air collaborator Beth Hirsch and frequent Boomclick vocalist Rosa Fernandez. One is Latin-flavored with “a big hip-hop beat,” says Menter, and the other is “minimal acoustic guitar.” The third is an uptempo instrumental.

Marking the rebirth of Dorado, a label significant in the development of the downtempo sound, A Great Day for the Race also realizes the promise of Blueflame’s EPs on Bolshi and continues that label’s tradition of eclecticism. The label is dead; long live the label!

Essential Discography of Cities of Foam

Cities of Foam Releases:
Morning Falls EP (2010)
A Great Day for the Race (Dorado, 2006)
Last Man Standing (Dorado, 2005)

Blueflame Singles:
From Kings Cross to Walhalla (Bolshi Blue, 2002)
Sunday at the Rollerdisco (Bolshi Blue, 2001)
Barrel Jumping (split single with Bantam) (Oakgroove, 2001)
Primary Incision (split EP with Bantam) (Oakgroove, 1999)