, October 19th, 2010 07:57
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.