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Darkstar
North Tim Burrows , October 19th, 2010 07:57

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The question whether music can still be concerned with place in an internet age that has, to some extent, devoured both, is one that has triggered much debate in articles such as this one by fellow Quietus scribe Hazel Sheffield. As locally-specific scenes lose their importance, is geography now becoming a defunct term in the musical lexicon? Or is place, conversely, more important than ever in understanding music, its melancholic forms, its potency? I'm sticking with the latter. Because, while bedrooms are vital to the planning and execution of the majority of today's more interesting music, one needs to take a look outside to have a chance of creating something as pure and definite as North by Darkstar.

It is the product of toil by displaced northern Englishmen, Cheshire-born James Young and Yorkshire-born Aiden Whalley, the duo behind Darkstar's breakthrough song, last year's romantic, glitchy 2-step dancefloor number 'Aidy's Girl Is A Computer'. At the start of the year, the pair scrapped a whole album of similar fare, enlisted singer James Buttery, and created a series of slow burning, nocturnal odes to love, loss and the problem of place. It has to go down as one of the most successful musical about-turns in recent years.

After the slow building fanfare track that is 'In The Wings', the album is kick-started by the wide-eyed opening bars of 'Gold', their cover of the Human League obscurity 'You Remind Me Of Gold', a B side to 'Fascination'. Locking into a beat, it is noticeably slower – there's less champagne and coke about, less glitz and glamour. It is a plaintive rendition, but no less faithful; if anything it scrapes away the period pomp to unearth a centre of pure melancholy which was already there.

The title track, 'North', is a memory march, an unrepentant evocation of the industrial north, whose last remnants were blasted away during the 1980s, a period which influences much of this album, when the area was awash with synth bands such as the 'League and OMD. But it isn't the only influence. There's Radiohead here, woozy science fiction and Lynchian soundtracks, a whole host of UK dance, industrial and post-rock signifiers. And of course, the Hyperdub tradition, not least Burial. Here, as with that formerly anonymous, nocturnal trailblazer, absence is a presence – but it isn't quite the drowned subcultural world as in Burial's schizoid soundscape. There are boundaries, albeit a complex weave, set by tradition and scaled through blind conquest.

The album belongs in London as much as it does in the north: perhaps even more so, in this capital, toward which musicians and artists – and dreaded 'creatives' – are pulled like iron filings are to a magnet. This metropolis, where all around are men and women in deceptively slack trousers and angled stances, proclaiming abandoned basements and lofts, stairwells and rooftops as “great space...amazing space".

The album's very being reflects the centralisation of culture in the UK: the London Polarisation, you're either there or you're not. Darkstar need to be close to it to survive but, in a way, they have made a devil pact, forsaking their neglected North for north London, friends and customs for fumbling through Clapton, a decade passing like sand through fingers. But in doing so they have avoided the parochial, the specifically local that makes the album not about keeping up with infantilised scenes, but about feelings and musings on alienation and the notion of home.

“Geography is destiny," as James Ellroy said. And while this destiny might not be exactly be what Messrs Whalley and Young once dreamed of, it has become the catalyst for this gorgeous, emotionally rich, unique album. “I won't forget you," repeats Buttery at the close of the album's final track, 'When It's Gone'. His synthetic, multilayered vocal, which has stuttered under the strain of transmission throughout, is unequivocal.

Necks
Oct 19, 2010 12:27pm

I completely agree. Place does matter. For another example see Dave Sitek's Maximum Balloon, which, in my opinion, clearly reflects his relocation in Los Angeles.

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derek walmsley
Oct 26, 2010 11:07am

I was meaning to reply to this, but forgot. I think you're absolutely right that geography is more important than ever. But how does this relate to Darkstar? As far as I can tell, none of the lyrics reference the idea, so it's just the title of the album, and vague air of wistfulness. There's a definite sense of ennui, but does that really connect with the theme of place? I'm not sure it quite does.

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Tim Burrows
Oct 26, 2010 3:03pm

I wrote this after reading the fascinating interview between Kode 9 and the band on the hyperdub website. I meant to include a link to the interview but was hurrying to file it and forgot - here tis: http://hyperdubrecords.blogspot.com/2010/08/darkstar-interview-by-kode9.html
Young talks at length about the effect that being a northerner in E5 has had on him. It seemed to be something that affected the pair and was important to the process of making the album.
But I had felt it already. I think the sudden statement of 'Gold', particularly (but not solely) its 'League origins evoking the synth heritage of the north... the hammering, industrial feel of the title track; the albums grander, more spacious feel, when compared to earlier work, as though based on a widescreen memory of the north as opposed to the intense, fizzing London. I just came round to thinking that maybe it is from musing on something deeper, their displacement that has prompted this about turn from Aidy's... which, while still great, stands apart from the rest of the album's yearning, melancholic feel.
It doesn't approach the idea of place specifically in the lyrics (though there are clues) but that wouldn't be the first time an album has expressed an idea, or a feeling, that the songwriter has not baldly referenced via. And there are lyrics that refer to loss and dislocation.
As I've suggested, the specific issue with place here is to do with memory and displacement - the essential migration to London for those not already connected to the capital creates a context of dislocation for the migrant. Which I reckon is important when talking about this album.

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