Album Review: Populous – Azulejos [Wonderwheel Recordings // La Tempesta Dischi, 9th June 2017]

If you’ve ever wandered through the streets of Lisbon, you probably came across stunning walls of blue-painted ceramic tiles, the azulejos, depicting amazingly intricate patterns and detailed paintings.

The iconic tiles give name to the fifth album of the Lecce-born, Milan-based producer, Andrea Mangia, aka Populous, after his experience in Lisbon a city he got to know, explore, and finally consecrate in a compelling and enveloping work. This album is a wholehearted homage to the city of the seven hills, a joyful celebration in music and colours coming together in the wonderful music videos directed by Emanuele Kabu.

As the first track, “Alfama”, begins, we find ourselves immersed in one of the bright yellow trams that cross the city every day, surrounded by voices of local men and women – one of the many field recordings that Mangia gathered during his stay. As if passing through the opening doors of the tram, a soft melody slowly makes its way with an immediate sense of lightness and dreamlike happiness. And so, the journey begins.

The rhythmic drive is a major component of Populous’ music as it leads the tracks in a different, exciting way. His references are clear, openly declared, and yet he manages to make them his own by keeping them together with impressive uniformity in sound and style. Like the trams that ride up and down the steepest streets of Lisbon, this album is a rhythmic ride perfectly swinging between highs and lows, frenzy and quiet, pounding beats and soothing melodies.

His musical explorations have different roots: from South America, with the cumbia in “Caparica” and the Andean sounds of “Mi Sueño”, to hints of South African Gqom and Angola’s kuduro, to the Caribbean rhythms of “Voz Serena” a multifaceted track nodding to the steady sound of dub which suddenly transforms into a bouncy reggaeton beat after the first minute. This track is the perfect example of Populous’ ability to surprise our ears with exciting and unexpected twists.

Most of the tracks of Azulejos are entirely instrumental. In this ocean of sounds made of percussions, flutes, strings, cowbells, and more, Mangia surprises us twice with the silky voices of Colombian singer Ela Minus in “Azul Oro” and of former Smoke City singer Nina Miranda in Cru, arguably my favourite track of the album. The softness in her voice and the gentleness of the Portuguese language seamlessly meet with the highly refined and graceful production.

Just like the tile walls of Lisbon, Populous’ compositions are skillfully crafted with care – juxtaposing, blending, and mixing smaller elements together to create grand magnificent patterns. Every track fully permeates the space around you, be it in your earphones or in your bedroom. Yet, this album is a beautiful ode to simplicity and minimalism. It’s the warm wind running through your fingers, the smell of salt on your skin, the light reflecting on pastel-coloured façades. It’s a pristine appreciation of the little things in everyday life. And it’s already a part of mine.