, January 22nd, 2016 12:25
It's an easy and inaccurate shortcut to assume that Roly Porter has "come a long way" since the split of his seminal dubstep duo Vex'd in the late 2000s. That's not intended as a slight on Porter, but rather to remind folks that Vex'd were always more than a dubstep act. As early as 2005's Degenerate album, Vex'd (the other half of which was Kuedo, aka Jamie Teasdale) took the sub-bass and skittish beats of dubstep and pitched them out of the UK's urban sprawl and into a dystopian future cityscape that mirrored reality even as it upped its chill factor several hundred times. Where a lot of dubstep was dense and hook-based, Vex'd music was constantly split by passages of icy silence and abstract atmospherics. So, whilst subsequent solo albums such as Life Cycle Of A Massive Star might initially tempt listeners and journalists to assume Porter has moved on from the dancefloor to epic space odysseys, that would be to underestimate both Porter's past and his present.
In fairness, when his latest offering Third Law's opener '4101' kicks in with a massed choir of ghostly voices chanting and moaning in unison like the soundtrack to the bits of 2001 when the monolith appears, it initially seems that Roly Porter is taking his interest in deep space and science fiction even further into the cinematic and leaving the trivialities of beats and dancing well behind. And let's be clear: Third Law is not an album many will find easy to dance to, and indeed if I ever meet anyone who says they had a boogie to it, I will be both troubled and more than a little impressed. If the album then retreats silently from that widescreen opening, its aura remains, the melodies and atmospheres are never anything less than potent, as Porter deploys thundering kick drums like explosions and synths swirl together like gigantic nebulae across the eight tracks. '4101' is particularly potent as an opener, sucking you in like a hungry vortex and buffeting your sense with sonic overload. Its follow-up, 'In System', is more mellow, a deep ambient piece with sampled violins, electronic bleeps like the call buttons on airplanes and a gentle susurration of bass running underneath it like an erratic heartbeat. 'Blind Blackening' returns to the morose physicality of '4101', but the beats, whilst still heavy, are more sparsely deployed and the voices less up front, with Porter deliberately tempering any bombast with nuance and subtlety. Indeed, even if the track titles still suggest an conceptual fascination with space ('In System', 'Mass', 'In Flight'), these are abstract enough that Third Law is not bogged down with distracting narratives.
A key factor is that rhythm remains a key component of his music, so even if this isn't danceable music, its roots are clearly the traditions that animated Vex'd (and more clearly animate Kuedo's output). 'Mass' bustles with accelerating bass thumps and trilling synths that could almost be nods to footwork's hyperactive jiggle, before building into a truly luscious mixture of mutated techno and glistening ambient. 'Departure Stage' features the sort of background haze and grainy textures you might find on early Burial, albeit juxtaposed with slow-moving, glacial synths à la Eno; whilst 'High Places' heaves with the kind of crackle and stop-start rhythmic pulsations of instrumental grime. It may be more expansive, with gaping holes of near-silence, but I swear I can hear echoes of Mr. Mitch and Visionist locked inside Porter's ebb-and-flow on it and the equally unsettled 'Departure Stage'. Even the most abstract, percussion-light pieces are defined by a relentless forward motion, each one building in incremental steps towards a more fleshed-out whole from sparse beginnings, whilst the noisier aspects on Third Law are ultimately closer in feel, if not approach, to the more rhythmic side of noise than, say, the abstract, claustrophobic and beatless harshness of wall noise.
After The Life Cycle Of A Massive Star, the above could sound like Roly Porter is taking a step back in his ambitions, but Third Law in fact sees him taking a wise look inwards, re-appraising and drawing upon his influences and past techniques, and adapting his music accordingly, resulting in an album that is far more detailed and interesting than its predecessor. At times I was concerned when listening the first time that he looked set to descend into Ben Frost-esque bombast with his liberal use of synth blasts that sound like a hundred prudes gasping in unison (I actually like Frost's studio albums -and he uses that effect very well on By The Throat - but I was driven to despair by the pomposity of both live performances I've seen), but fortunately there is enough subtlety and intelligence displayed on Third Law to make those worries an irrelevance. It also bodes excitingly for Porter and Teasdale's upcoming Vex'd reunion. Both have built impressively on their dubstep origins, but the original Degenerate spirit remains intact.