Matt Hales has made this year's most surprising album. Less a departure from Aqualung's past as a forward-looking fresh start, the aptly-titled 10 Futures is the sound of an artist gleefully abandoning boundaries, confounding expectations and, most importantly, having fun.
Five years ago, Hales swapped south London for the mountains of California, a move that transformed his life overnight and his career almost as quickly. He was, he announced, done with Aqualung after the release of his fifth album, 2010's Magnetic North. His plan to produce and write for other artists went better than he could have dreamt. Jason Mraz, Alex Clare, SOHN, Birdy, Paloma Faith, and Rihanna collaborator Mikky Ekko were among those who knocked on his new studio door. He had a song, "Cold," on the first "Twilight" soundtrack and commissions for adverts and TV series.
He struck gold in 2012 with Lianne La Havas's Top 5, Mercury Music Prize-nominated, Prince-endorsed debut album, Is Your Love Big Enough?, which he produced and largely co-wrote.
A busy, happy Hales had no intention of returning to Aqualung, despite constant enquiries from his collaborators and his manager's nagging.
"Magnetic North felt like a nice conclusion to a decade of making records," he says. "For Aqualung, I'd have to go back in time, to a style of music I enjoyed leaving behind. My first reaction was that I couldn't see the point."
The prospect of making an album, however, was left burrowing in Hales's brain -- "like a terrible parasite," as he puts it. Gradually, he realised the solution was staring him in the face. He should apply all he had learnt in the last few years to his own songs, collaborate rather than create in a bubble and be bold enough to break out of the box that Aqualung had become.
A glance at the album's track list tells the tale. Seven of the ten songs feature guest vocalists; two of those that don't were co-written. As diverse as the list of guests -- which range from La Havas and Luke Sital-Singh to Glaswegian electro trio Prides and art-rock band Sweet Billy Pilgrim -- are the styles of music they dip in and out of. From the glitchy R&B-meets-TV theme tune madness of lead single "Tape 2 Tape," sung by Joel Compass, and the distortion and strings-accompanied piano ballad "Seventeens" to the frisky, Paul Simon-meets-Prince pop of "Shame On Me," featuring Australian singer Josef Salvat, and the choral-influenced ambient beauty of "Everything," 10 Futures is the sound of Aqualung revived, reinvigorated and fearlessly reinvented.
Most of the music was made on machines, rather than "real" instruments, including the strikingly-arranged strings. Almost all of the songs began as loops built from samples, several boast bizarre background sounds, none are what you expect from the man who found fame with "Strange & Beautiful," a haunting ballad that soundtracked a TV ad for a car. That they don't adhere to a theme didn't matter. 10 Futures is precisely what it advertises on the tin -- ten innovative songs that pursue an adventurous path with no precedent.
"That I can detect myself in every song is enough of a thread," says Hales. "In them all, I hear myself refracted as a different artist from what I thought I was stuck with. It's exciting. I went places that, on paper, I wasn't supposed to. Now I can't wait to do more."
Every song tells a story, but rather than traditional tales of love, life or loss, they are stories of sound (often found sound), of methods of creation and of the process of collaboration.
"Tape 2 Tape" was inspired by a conversation Hales had about cassettes. "People fetishise vinyl, but even though I grew up in a record shop, the medium of my youth was cassettes," he says. "Reminiscing about them led me to download cassette sound samples and make a beat out of them.
"From that beat I made a loop which I left and came back to. Most of these songs started as thirty second nuggets of sound that I'd return to and add to over time, like old oil paintings that have so many layers it's hard to remember what they began as.
"The TV theme tune bit that keeps busting in was a hallucination I had when I was running. I imagined this crazy, colourful music trying to infiltrate the track. In the general spirit of going with the flow, I made that music, sampled it and put it on there, even though it shouldn't fit."
The background noise on "Everything" is SOHN's Christopher Taylor rubbing his trousers. "The starting point of that song was us talking about tiny sounds," explains Hales. "Chris was stepping very quietly in the studio while rubbing his trousers. He had some change in his pocket, which gave the noise a slightly tambourine-y quality.
"Heart, which I wrote with Mikky Ekko, came from a discussion about making your own instruments. We took a tom tom out to the driveway and recorded it, as well as birds and a bit of traffic. That was the loop that started the song and, hence, makes it unique.
"The album is stuffed with really very peculiar noises. Often, I just open the studio doors and record what's going on. Lots of sounds were made from other sounds. If you're trying to shed the singer/songwriter skin, the last thing you want is to be playing piano all the time."