By JENNIFER KELLY
Manchester dubstep/electronic artist Andy Stott has moved farther from the austere in this fourth full-length, continuing to push his brainy, rhythmically abrasive sound towards a dreamier, more melodic place. That’s partly due to the continued participation of Alison Skidmore, Stott’s former piano teacher, who made her debut on 2012’s Luxury Problems. Here she breathes a hushed, tremulous, organic softness into Stott’s cerebral structures, reinforcing a tendency towards more real world sounds and less computer chill.
This, according to interviews, is Stott’s first album to grapple with analog rather than digital equipment. Thus the roughness sounds rougher, the warmth warmer. He also makes prominent use of found sounds here. “Science and Industry” gets its name from the Manchester museum where Stott recorded the track’s clanging metallic rhythms. They come from a piston on an old steam engine. There is nothing digital about them, and they make an interesting counter-argument to the cut’s skittery, trebly, wholly inorganic drum machine beat.
Likewise, in “Missing,” the main sonic themes are derived from what sounds like a stand-up bass, its strings plucked and bowed and skidded over with fingers. Almost a minute goes by before Skidmore’s denatured, angelic soprano floats over, or pinging electronics glitter in the interstices. While not headed for an MTV Unplugged session any time soon, Stott has let the world around him in to a much larger degree than the past.
Not that verisimilitude is his bag, though. These sounds come filtered and amplified and hedged in by synthetic clamor. They are recognizable as faces in a dream, but like those faces, tend to become as unreal and untouchable as the surrounding weirdness.
To my ears, “Violence,” the first single, gets the balance best, opening in eerie foghorn blasts, a surreal landscape of quiet punctuated by terror. Skidmore’s voice is feather-soft, blurry, filtered through a haze, words landing like kisses with no teeth behind them, but it is also disturbing. She is asking, in her somnolent way, “Who is stalking? Who is crouching?” as blares of noise tear through low volume atmospheres. You could almost imagine her laying low, as some threat or another passes through.
The title track is a far more hedonistic affair, evoking classic R&B like Prince and Chic, in its Rhodes-y keyboards, rubbery bass and drum machine (these elements may be synthesized, but that’s what they sound like). Yet even here, there’s a buried, twitchy pulse, a cloud of disintegration that rolls over the dance floor. The noise may have abated, but it’s waiting, just under the surface. Party on, but be ready for the zzzzzzzzzzzzt of good times that short out, of melody that is subsumed into random zeros and ones.
And that’s maybe what’s so remarkable about Faith in Strangers, its uneasy balance between beauty and menace, calm and roiling intensity. Tip the blend towards melody, or away from it, and it could easily be less compelling. Stott keeps it, and you, on the knife edge.
DOWNLOAD: “Violence,” “Faith in Strangers”