First Look: New Darkstar Album

 

Beaming through the blackness,
the electronic duo sees its new album North issued by Britain’s
Hyperdub label this week. We’ll go out on a limb and call it one of the year’s
best, hands down. Watch the video for “Gold,” below.

 

By Dominic Umile

 

Darkstar’s “Aidy’s Girl Is a Computer” saw 12″ release
just before its appearance on a 2009 anniversary compilation from electronic
label Hyperdub. The single’s jolting house remix from Detroit producer Kyle Hall aside,
“Aidy’s Girl…” was revered for its arresting emotional core and
subtle 2-step formula. Those who’d chattered about what the British producers
were planning for their in-the-works debut album considered “Aidy’s Girl…”
a marvelous precursor.

 

A segment of what was indeed then being adjourned for Darkstar’s
full-length, “Aidy’s Girl…” is peppered with unfinished android
dialogue, pint glass-clinks, and curling synthesizers. On the finished North,
it’s a relic.

 

Darkstar’s James Young and Aiden Whalley trashed almost all of what
they’d been mapping out for North (Hyperdub) stuff that reportedly
sounded too much like “Aidy’s…”, and started down a new road,
adding vocalist James Buttery. Even as Steve “Kode9” Goodman has
seemingly all but assured that the Hyperdub catalog will always break ground
(see works from Ikonika, Cooly G, Burial, etc.), Darkstar’s North is
quite unlike anything that’s ever come out of the label’s London office. It’s mournful, delicate synth pop,
with warm chord progressions that advance slowly and evenly around hyper-edited
vocals.

 

 

Singer James Buttery is wistful and romantic on North,
particularly during an ode to a “long kiss goodbye” that closes out
the album. Hovering over a whirlwind of sullen melodies, Buttery’s vocals are
processed to the point of heavy decimation, which does little to lighten the
record’s despondent air. The words are soft and tender, with his nearly
undetectable rasp edited so that he’s stuttering and splintering off, as if
someone yanked the quarter-inch mic cable end out of the mixing board, bumping
each bit of metal on the way to a more secure jack. Fizzzz, pop, stutter. It’s
at first jarring against the clean interplay of piano and violin loops during
opener “In the Wings.” But in a matter of minutes, North‘s
vocal manipulation and distortion become integral to the shape of the record, a
lush, comely experiment that can be likened in places to Thom Yorke’s Eraser for its damp mood and often skittering beats. Thick synth tones mirror a dozen
dead phone lines on “Under One Roof” before the chorus’s swelling
reed organs seep in, while the treated guitars on “Dear Heartbeat”
and “Deadness” are woven tastefully into electronic textures, much
like they were for New Order’s “Your Silent Face” in 1983.

 

Darkstar developed an authentically enigmatic atmosphere for North,
steering from the potential black hole of overusing computer vocals, or worse,
trying to replicate the breakout analog-meets-UK garage funk of their 2008 Hyperdub
twelve “Need You.” That’s in the past-rather than exploring a nuanced
brand of the dubstep that the producers had already established, they built a
Mars-red epic, complete with a sleek Human League interpretation
(“Gold”) to fit its hybrid of techno and science fiction film score
fanaticism. This record is beaming, even as every measure is taken to keep out
the light.

 

 

 

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