Participant – ‘Content’ EP

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[Originally published in GoldenPlec]

There is a trembling, disarming intimacy that washes over you within the opening seconds of Content, the most recent EP from solo artist Participant. It’s a strange but pleasant feeling that endures throughout the 15 minutes it takes to listen to the four tracks all the way through. This is an EP that transports its listener to another world; slow sweeps of odd electronic sounds juddering behind pleasingly soft vocals that seem to hover over proceedings like a dream.

The second EP from Dublin’s Stephen Tiernan takes the themes and sounds explored on his 2014 debut, Bit Slow, and improves upon them. The soundscapes are a little more fully-formed – a little richer than before. Participant, fascinatingly, samples exclusively from his own recordings – repurposing and recycling to create something unique. It’s a quietly experimental approach, and the songs are striking for it. But, at times, one can’t help but wonder if he’s holding back a little bit.

Opening track ‘Your Better’ is a perfect exemplar of Tiernan’s style. At times, he is the more conventional indie singer-songwriter: guitar and heart-on-sleeve lyrics. But then, slowly, there is the ebb and flow of echoey sounds, adding a fullness that overwhelms whilst simultaneously somehow brimming quietly beneath the surface, like a subtly swelling ocean.

There’s more of an ‘80s-esque romantic spangle to ‘Sooner or Later’with its spacey, atmospheric waltz, soaring lines of dissonant melody and the occasional pang of guttural bass line. This, all while Tiernan repeats in that distinctive, delicate voice: “Sooner or later / He’s gonna break her”. 

Indeed, the verging on tremolo soft vocals on ‘A Change’ recall Devendra Banhart if he had ever gone a bit electro-ambient. This is very much a compliment: strange, indie, folky stylings and earnest vocals all paired with drum loops, echoes of strings and electronic treatment are no bad thing. It might be an interesting experiment to take things a little further though, letting the electronic sounds get just a tad more pervasive.

After the first three tracks, there’s a slight worry that the sound might wear a little thin – certainly, Tiernan is doing something that is, at times, quite beautiful, but it’s a style that might get tired in an album format. But then, closing track ‘By Default’ melds the lovelorn sweetness and ambience with occasional bursts of scuzzier guitars, and is all the better for it: a happy reminder that Participant is by no means a one trick pony. It’s a song that showcases the sound he has perfected, merged with something a bit different – something with an edge. The song crescendos quite wonderfully into a full-on ballad which is striking in its earnestness, before coming back down into rainy quietness.

For cold, sleepy, stressed-out nights, Participant has provided a comfort of sorts in this EP: a feeling of ‘Content’. For the next release, though, it’d be nice to see him more than content: to see Tiernan challenged and getting even more experimental.

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