Naming the wordless opening track on your album ‘Foreword’ demonstrates a certain musical intent. For Alfa Mist, though, his ‘Foreword’ at the start of Variables is simultaneously instructive and misleading: on the one hand, it introduces one of the main stylistic through-lines of the album, namely sleekly bubbling and expressive instrumental jazz, full of motion and energy, which returns sporadically throughout. On the other, though, it’s not really a foreword at all, given that it takes up nearly a fifth of Variables’s entire running time, and its big-band swagger is immediately followed by a shift into solemn, intimate rapping over reserved boom-bap beats on track two, which, while full of groove and pleasing concision, feels like it’s come from a different record entirely.
Indeed, this stylistic flip-flopping makes Alfa Mist’s fifth album proper seem more mixtape-like: as the boom-bap makes way for silky neo soul cooing brushed with acoustic guitar and lush string arrangements (‘Aged Eyes’), and then to a spiralling guitar interlude halfway between modern-era Radiohead and Kamasi Washington (‘Cycles’), there’s a sense of Mist perhaps losing his nerve after such a stylistically confident start.
Then again, a record called Variables can be forgiven for going hard on the, well, variety, and everything here is skillfully constructed and played, whatever the genre. But the patchwork quality makes it difficult to fully dive into Mist’s vision, and only on the final two tracks does the record really find its backbone. At that point, though, it’s a revelation: ‘4th Feb’s heavy-hearted rapping backed with electric piano is some of the best UK hip-hop of its kind since Little Simz’s SIMBI, and the frisson that accompanies single-take improv of ‘BC’ is tangible, and really exciting as a result. It leaves Variables exiting on a high after a long, rather stop-start run-up.