Anna Meredith

FIBS (Black Prince Fury)

Contact Brid Walpole about Anna Meredith

“Get on board, come with me, this music’s doing something.” So goes Anna Meredith’s rallying cry on the eve of her second album, FIBS, being unleashed into the wild, an open invitation from the composer, performer and producer to revel with her in 45 minutes of technicolour maximalism, almost perpetual rhythmic reinvention, and, most impressively, a visceral richness and accessibility unparalleled in her twenty-year-long composing career.


For the first fifteen or so of those years, Meredith made a full-time living as a writer of music for other people, taking commissions from international orchestras, operas and cultural institutions, writing symphonies, songs and string quartets, exploring boomwhackers, beatboxing and body percussion, her music being heard at the Proms, in motorway service station flash-mob performances and on haute-couture catwalks. She was the first woman to be commissioned for the Last Night of the Proms, took on the most challenging and outlandish commissions, and across it all her profile rose.


Then, in 2016, Meredith released Varmints, her debut studio album and, following a pair of warmly received EPs, her first-ever feature-length self-commissioned work. It was a gamble not just financially, involving months of unpaid writing, but also psychologically: by putting herself in charge, and front and centre, rather than simply being told what to write, she had no-one to answer to but herself — the pressure was on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, given Meredith’s extensive experience for knocking together fairly impressive, genre-defying pieces of music, Varmintswas an unqualified success. A suite that juxtaposed hulking slabs of cross-rhythm and electronics with brittle gusts of delicate confession and irresistibly addictive pop melody, the record garnered rave reviews, won the 2016 Scottish Album of the Year, and was named Loud And Quiet magazine’s album of the year. A clear grower, Varmintsoutlasted the standard album-release schedule, meaning Meredith and her band were still touring it round the world and the festival circuit two years later, culminating in a sold-out performance of the album in full at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last April, backed by the Southbank Sinfonia.


Now, three and a half years on from the release of Varmints, Meredith is ready to go again. But FIBS isn’t your typical follow-up album: for a start, there is no danger of “difficult second-album syndrome” here, because it’s Meredith’s second album in name only. “I’m like yeah, it’s alright, I’ve written quite a lot of music before,” she says with a knowing grin, acknowledging that the standard yardstick for bands sitting down to write their second collection of songs doesn’t exactly apply to a composer who’s lost count of how many pieces of music she’s had published over the years.


Indeed, in the period between Varmintsand FIBSalone, Meredith has written Anno, an interpolation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,for the Scottish Ensemble, the soundtrack to Bo Burnham’s brilliant coming-of-age movie Eighth Grade, a commission for the First Night of the Proms, Five Telegrams, to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, and even the lift music for the Manchester International Festival. There was also the small matter of Meredith being awarded an MBE in this year’s Queen’s birthday honours in June, and, with FIBSnow in the can, she’s already back to work, scoring forthcoming Paul Rudd Netflix comedy series Living With Yourself. “It’s been really busy, bang-bang-bang, writing constantly,” she admits of the past three years. With that sort of drive and relentless work ethic, there was no danger of Meredith bottling it.


And it’s not just the circumstances, but the content, too, that makes FIBSfar from the standard second album; FIBS is no “Varmints Part 2” — the retreading of old ground, or even a smooth progression from one project to another, just isn’t Meredith’s style. Instead, if anything, it’s “Varmints 2.0”, an overhauled and updated version of the composer’s soundworld, involving, in places, a literal retooling that has seen Meredith chuck out her old MIDI patches and combine her unique compositional voice with brand-new instruments, both acoustic and electronic, and a writing process that’s more intense than she’s ever known. “It’s been hugely time-consuming,” she explains. “More instruments, more involvement from the band, more layers, just more. So it’s just been months and months and months in the writing and recording.”


From the moment that FIBSleaps from the traps, though, it’s clear that it’s been time well spent: from the mania of ‘Sawbones’’opening flurry inspired by The Shepard Toneauditory illusion — brash, muscular tuba beneath flickering electronics in perfect counter-rhythm — and into its corkscrewing middle section, the precision and complexity alongside the instantly infectious energy is transfixing. Equally, the deliciously deviant wonk of ‘Bump’, sounding like Darth Vader with an extra limb trying to herd a particularly feral flock of goats, is as knotty as it is completely exhilarating, and ‘Paramour’ forbids you from turning away, its sweeps, jerks and wrong turns pinning your ears to the speakers.


Performance precision, aesthetic purity, bombast, lurches, competing rhythms, and a direct appeal to your most basal senses — sure, it’s all straight from the now-familiar Meredith playbook, but on FIBSit’s been suped up, optimised, and executed with exactly the panache that this kind of writing deserves.Despite her background and skills, these pieces are not just technical exercises: the world of FIBS is at times both overwhelming and intimate, a journey of extreme energy and cheerful irreverence, and Meredith has held nothing back.


Then there are the songs, each one laced with the sort of bittersweet lyricism and direct emotional connection normally associated with traditional acoustic guitar botherers, but here rendered in perfectly cracked electronic snowglobes full of paired flurries of mayhem and hush. Yearning lead single ‘Inhale Exhale’, which Meredith describes as the best pop song she’s written, marries her crystalline singing voice with ravey electronics to create something simultaneously catchy and unsettling. Witness also the joyful off-kilter colours of ‘Killjoy’, the languidly sinisterbuild of ‘Divining’ or the wide-open skies of ‘Ribbons’ — again, it’s unequivocally Anna Meredith, but never as you’ve heard her before.


Add the gorgeous cello solo of ‘moonmoons’, where clashing string parts shift the track from sweet and mournful to something more insidious, and the graceful album coda ‘Unfurl’, all hermetically sealed alien spacecraft bell tones below deck, with Meredith’s pure vocal above, and you have a rollercoaster of a record, full of tension and release, grace and havoc, and rise and face-contorting drop — and, crucially, an album as fascinating as it is thrilling, the perfect balance of head and heart.


So, FIBSis a sensory day at the zoo, of course — you’d expect nothing less from Meredith. But FIBSis also a gentle manifesto to the pleasures of music on its own terms, where all the knowledge required to understand and convene with the record are contained within it. There is no narrative to advance, no comment to be made, just enveloping, evocative sound: “The music here isn’t about politics or poetry or art or the world, really,” Meredith explains. “It’s just about what works in the music. It’s a vehicle for itself, working with and in service of itself.” Accordingly, for all the knottiness and complexity on display, the listeners needn’t exert themselves, but just absorb. “I’m not trying to be clever — I’m trying to be really open and I’m giving everything of myself,” she says. “I’m laying myself bare. I want people to come with me on the whole shape of the album. The journey is not designed as an academic exercise. It’s supposed to be visceral. Get on board. Come with me. This music’s doing something.”


FIBS, says Meredith, are “lies — but nice friendly lies, little stories and constructions and daydreams and narratives that you make for yourself or you tell yourself”. Entirely internally generated and perfectly balanced and self-sustaining, they can be a source of comfort and excitement, intrigue and endless entertainment. The eleven fibs contained on Anna Meredith’s second record will do all that, and more besides.