Kicking off his career during the Lo-Fi house explosion of the mid 2010’s, recent years have seen producer and vocalist Michael Baltra drop the crunchy kicks and hats and carve out his own niche with releases on dance floor staples Hotflush, 3024 and Ghostly International.
Released in 2019, his debut album Ted saw the suavely turned out artist follow a similar trajectory to fellow YouTube Lo-Fi stars Ross From Friends and DJ Boring, incorporating clean breaks, washy ambience and 80s drum machines to create a well-rounded set of tracks that took influence from the dance floors of his adoptive home without every bridging the gap into fully fledged club music.
Like many of his peers, Baltra’s music sits in this ever-expanding middle ground of club-influenced electronica that could conceivably be heard at a hazed out after-party or your favourite independent coffee shop, pleasingly composed from warm, analog synths and choppy vocal stabs.
Ambition, released May 27th via London based imprint Local Action, sees the artist delve deeper into his sound, firmly placing his own vocals at the centre of the EP and incorporating a more song-focused approach to composition and arrangement that pushes the release further from the dance floor sound system and closer to the kind of dreamy, nonchalant workouts pushed by peers Park Hye Jin and Yaeji.
Across the five tracks, Baltra admirably experiments with different tempos, textures and vocal processing, touching on many of the cornerstones of his previous work while introducing some organic moments that feel like an artist breaking free from the 16-bar loop format imposed by computer screens and DAW interfaces. This is illustrated perfectly on the final two tracks ‘Like a Butterfly’ and ‘Will You Be’, that tinker playfully with lush saxophone accompaniments, jazzy rhodes chords and gorgeous atmospheric synth sweeps that make for some of the artist’s strongest work to date.
While much has been made of Baltra’s move into a quasi-singer-songwriter role, the lyrics and vocal delivery fall slightly short at times during the project. Erring towards dog-whistle Americanisms about “smoking lye” and “catch[ing] a vibe”, the vocals undersell the airy, atmospheric feel of ‘Baby’, a track so satisfyingly produced it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside some of Orbital’s finest work.
‘Make It B.I.G’ suffers this same imbalance between vocal and production quality, but thankfully, follower ‘Work It Out’ leans away almost immediately, combining Crash Bandicoot percussion with some jarring audio effects and a driving low-end, coming out with one of the most alluring and challenging compositions of the release.
Well-produced and executed with the kind of precision you’d expect from a producer of Baltra’s calibre, Ambition simultaneously offers up moments of blissful electronics and somewhat disappointing lyricism that threaten to capsize the carefully crafted instrumentals that define the release.
Yet, while the lower ebbs seem underdeveloped, the high points seem to represent a promising new direction for a producer in chrysalis, almost ready to shed the final remnants of his YouTube heyday and produce his masterpiece.