Friday, 15 February 2013

Album Review: Darkstar - News From Nowhere

Growers often pass by unnoticed. Fads garner attention to collective sounds, but obscure individuals. Frozen in these moulds, these individuals are expected to dissipate along with the freshness of their sub-genre, be forgotten, maybe get a job at the Carphone Warehouse if they're lucky, and get on with life as underappreciated as the rest of us. We're a fickle lot.

Such is the curse of "post-dubstep". Here today (2010-2011), gone tomorrow (2012+). Naturally at the time we knew it was ridiculous to group any new UK bass-inspired pop musicians as being inherently alike, but we did it nonetheless. If the post-dubstepper wants another fair crack at the whip, there are two ways in which to progress. The safer, though less rewarding path to follow is the same one they walked roughly 2-3 years earlier, knowing that the fashions have changed, and the chances of ever releasing an album as successful as their debut have already floated away on the breeze. In the case of the xx, it's probably enough to get by. Musicians, consumers and critics alike are a lot more resilient to the second path, change. The second album is always a baptism of fire, but for Darkstar it's hopefully saved them in the long run.

It feels especially unfair to lump Darkstar in with the others (I'm bored of the word already, forgive me), given their careers' resemblance with an (admittedly marginally earlier) trajectory of the equally adored and reviled poster-boy James Blake, who is also setting co-ordinates for 2013 for his re-emergence. Originally a duo on Hyperdub Records, Darkstar's first public turning point was the introduction of permanent vocalist James Buttery, a decision which ushered their something-else-entirely debut album North with a cover of the rare Human League b-side "You Remind Me Of Gold" (ringing any bells?). But as I say, people still curiously fear change, even when a group have shown to be adept at it, and are eager to sneer at anyone attempting to do something beyond the one or two things they've been prescribed. Which bluntly, is ridiculous. The first steps for News From Nowhere were relocating from Hyperdub to Warp, and bringing in frequent Wild Beasts producer Richard Formby. A more drastic, inspired or brave proposal couldn't be made.

The album begins with soft, manipulted drones. "Light Clock Body Starter" really is lovely, and an avid, confident statement not necessarily of less being more, but certainly more beautiful. It cuts suddenly to the jack-in-the-box of "Timeaway", which is where we're really treated to the group's vocal harmonies (as are the vocals themselves). In fact on every song the vocals are vague, disconcerting, even pensive; greatly contrasting the album's playbox of colourful loops, synths and samples. It's something Darkstar have above the rest. Often song structures are abandoned for great periods of time, leaving the listener to wallow in uncertainty in their absence, like in "Armonica", or left hanging altogether ("Amplified Ease"). It's pleasant to find an altenative to the build/drop formula, one post-dubstep was previously inclined to keep in some form. Percusssion as a whole is used sparingly, yet effectively. Sometimes as compensation songs are vocal-led, recalling old nursery rhymes, or the Beach Boys. It's probably not intended to actively tug at nostalgia, but as ever its hard to say where these songs are really coming from.

Conversely, it can be argued that songs on the album don't really go anywhere either. This is true, and previously I may be inclined to say this is a bad thing. Even Animal Collective, the album's closest reference point, usually have a stronger direction to their music, for all their recycled bloatedness. But here Darkstar use aimlesness as a form of expression. Animal Collective would never release an album called News From Nowhere. Lost in the thick fog rising above second album wasteground, the trio courageously re-emerge with wide-eyed expressions, resisting the temptations of clinical IDM or old soul dirge for something more adventurous, yet introspective and unique. These conflicts of situation and intention result in a feeling of damp happiness. When distilled into "Amplified Ease", I'm rewarded with one of my favourite songs of the year so far.

"Hold Me Down", the album's final seven minutes is another great example of this feeling. Like Wild Beasts' Smother closer "End Come Too Soon" it's content to take things slowly in order to drip every last drop from Buttery's voice. It's sign of maturity, of being satisfied with reality and realism, and is ultimately more effective than absolute escapism and whimsy. The sleeve of News Frrom Nowhere evokes that of Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam, but instead of depicting an instantly digestible sugary substance it shows unnaturally coloured, inedible-looking  flowers and berries. Darkstar's album takes a little time, and may not sustain interest for the whole year, but for now is charming and different enough to justify being ingested in a different way.

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