The artist known as Mali Mali makes for inspired, disarming listening. With flowing piano melodies echoing Elliott Smith and delicately constructed layers of texture akin to the post-rock musings of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Mali Mali (real name Ben Tolich) elegantly tows a line between classic pop-songwriting and aural experimentation.
Debut album Gather 'round the Gooseclock (2013) caught the attention of many and 2016’s follow-up As a Dog Dreams earned accolades the country over. "In an age when people protect themselves or present an ego in their absence, this sounds courageous", said Graham Reid of As a Dog Dreams.
After seemingly no time at all, Mali Mali returns with Azimuth, Tolich’s most accomplished and ambitious album yet.
Coursing through eight tracks of existential musings, Azimuth readily tackles metaphysical abstractions (the largeness of space, for example) with simple, succinct songs. The album’s title comes from a Middle Eastern word which means "The Direction", now known by astronomers as a specific term to do with mapping a celestial object. “It’s about spirituality and finding the line between order and chaos, the known and unknown”, says Tolich.
In the hands of less sophisticated songwriters this material could become brow-beating, yet Azimuth never descends to naval-gazing. Concise and and refined, the record harks to a classic mode of experimental antipodean songwriting, calling to the nature-pop of Alistair Gailbraith and Dudley Benson and the deadpan yet heartfelt baritone of Peter Jefferies. A raft of curious textures, synths, loops, percussive creaks and room sounds reveals a imploring, sonically explorative side to Tolich, the album’s centrepiece ‘A Tornado in El Reno’ being entirely instrumental. It's a sparse hypnotic piece with synths, horns, 12-string guitars flowing in and out.
Elsewhere, Tolich writes and performs with the playfulness of Harry Nilsson and the earnest intent of Sufjan Stevens, with intriguing yet unpretentious shifts in time-signature and key promising elegant surprises at every listen.
Self-recorded and produced at his home studio affectionately dubbed ‘The Coop’, Tolich’s production nous comes to the fore, weaving together a sensitive tapestry of sounds usually relegated to more experimental realms. Album opener ‘Remembrances’ calls to the best of post-rockers Broken Social Scene; ‘Blizzard’ sees plaintive piano line cascading under Tolich’s unaffected words: “Storm blows all around/ In a cabin underground/ drink up, tea cup”. The songs seemingly fell from Tolich’s hands and lips in a flurry following the release of As a Dog Dreams. Tolich is joined throughout by his wife Alice on harp, cello, and cornet, and Australian experimental singer/songwriter Jordan Ireland (Spunk) plays 12-string guitar on ‘A Tornado in El Reno’.
With eight tracks clocking in at just over 25 minutes, Azimuth serves as a musical morsel that is both satisfying but leaves one wanting more. Both meditative and confronting, Tolich’s songwriting has reached a new level of maturity; speaking with poetic and wry aplomb to matters of the head and heart.