Born Sara Steele in Stockholm, there’s certainly something of the frosty Scandinavian melancholia to Steele. Floating on the outskirts of the Big Time™, racking up 5 million streams and only missing the 2017 Elle fashion show because of a bout of Meningitis, Paroxysm seems custom-tooled to be the final crack that brings the dam crashing down into mainstream acceptance. The elegant, hushed vocals and quiet grandeur on show here evokes Lana Del Rey, while the sweeping soundscapes recall The xx, Steele’s musical trajectory intersecting with mainstream tastes.
Opener ‘Machine’ adheres smoothly to this formula, splicing sparse, arena-friendly drums, flares of cinematic synth and Steele’s own languid vocals. “I’m a fuck machine,” she declares in a striking moment of wait-a-minute incongruity, but this flicker of lyrical transgression vanishes as quickly as it appears. For the majority of the album, Steele’s vocals are used more as a musical instrument than a conveyor of lyrical meaning, and although this enhances the album’s atmospherics it also robs it of a tangible sense of identity. Indeed, an easy comparison here is Lorde, both in the smoky intimacy of the vocals and the minimalistic beats, but Paroxysm lacks the wit and emotional resonance of a Pure Heroine or a Melodrama. Despite the smoothness and slickness of the album’s surface, at times it can be difficult to unearth a tangible sense of identity to Steele.
However, the artist does show intermittent musical range here. ‘Looking For You’ is a welcome stylistic break into imposing, trap-inflected pop faintly reminiscent of Björk‘s ‘Army of Me’, all thudding bass and distorted electronics. ‘8AM’ is a sweeping, swooning digital torch song topped by a crackling, subtly emotive vocal, and is perhaps the album’s highlight. On ‘Opium’, Steele’s signature atmospherics are spun in a striking fever-dream of echoing vocals and pulsing percussion. However, the stylish production that enhances the latter track proves to be a mixed blessing for the album as a cohesive work. The tracks here are rendered smoky and opaque, beams of light only occasionally slicing through a murky sea; while atmospheric, it has a tendency to blur the songs into one another.
This lack of definition is perhaps the central flaw of “Paroxysm”. Even after listening to a full album ostensibly about her life, the listener is left with no real impression of Steele beyond the booming production that shrouds her vocals. The sleekness of her aesthetic simply isn’t enough to distinguish her from the innumerable other artists in her now-saturated genre of minimalist electro-pop. However, there are flashes of potential here that could be built upon in further releases, most notably ‘8AM’ and the melancholic sweep of ‘Machine’.
Words: Callum Oliver