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The Air Between Words Albert Freeman , June 23rd, 2014 10:20

In 2007, had someone asked what the title of a forthcoming Martyn album would be, The Air Between Words would have been a very suggestive answer. Since the beginning of his career, the displaced Dutchman, now a resident of Washington D.C., has made it his occupation to fill in the areas between musical subgenres with vivid life. It started in the early 2000s, when he colonised the gap between bleak tech-step and liquid funk drum & bass, and it found a natural continuation when grime and garage grew gradually darker and fused to become early dubstep. Taking a stance somewhere between techno, house, drum & bass, and the loosely-defined dub influences that formed the backbone of dubstep at its birth, his early classics like 'Broken', 'Vancouver' and other tracks again brought life to the small gaps that quickly began separating the increasingly gothic mutations of the new genre from its more fleet-footed origins. 

Things begin to lose their boundaries not much later than this, as Bristol, Berlin, and other operators like the Hessle Audio crew began infusing UK music with increasing amounts of techno influence, eventually leading to a full-blown revival of UK techno. With every new producer rushing forward to occupy the real estate Martijn Deykers had spent years cultivating, his music lost a portion of its apparent distinction, even if it remained more articulate than most. Like before, he continued to focus on classicist-leaning compositional ideas that remained distinctive, with each track developing a strong sense of melody and movement rather than relying on whatever stylistic tropes were then in vogue. This approach is reminiscent of much early and mid-period Detroit techno, where the tracks often overflowed with musical ideas and rarely put content second to form. Likewise, Martyn has always valued creating statements that stood independent of the genres they descended from by using the open space between their strict interpretations as freedom to fill in his own ideas. 

Coming off of the texturally raw, experimental ideas that dominated his 2011 album for Brainfeeder, Ghost People, The Air Between Words immediately strikes the listener as a more layered and deep album, in some ways harking back to the dubstep tracks that brought Deykers his initial notice. Tempos remain lower, around 130bpm, in keeping with much of the current outpouring of post-dubstep bass music and modern UK techno. A lifetime techno fan and listener, his previous album had been his first attempt at incorporating classic techno sounds like acid lines into his work and had come off a bit rough around the edges, in fitting with the album's general raw sound; here, such ideas are tackled with effortless sophistication and fully integrated into a palette that incorporates all of the various stylistic ideas Martyn has explored throughout his long production history. Again, he's brought in a few friends for cameos, with Four Tet applying his production prowess to 'Glassbead Games' and Inga Copeland adding vocals to three tracks, but the guest appearances barely divert the flow of a full-length that sounds very much the work of one man.

Being a producer preoccupied with the space between subgenres is a difficult role to fill in an era where dance subgenres are becoming increasingly blurred, but here Martyn responds to this by turning in an album that incorporates a larger range of feelings than either of his previous two. If his debut album Great Lengths was a curiously pretty affair that often found well-earned Theo Parrish comparisons, tracks like 'Drones' and the Copeland feature 'Love Of Pleasure' find Deykers returning to gentler territories with flair. The former in particular, with its jazzy keys, horn samples, and house thump in the intro, is a dead ringer for Detroit, at least until the busier drum programming and acid enters in its second half to change its direction into something quite recognisably the work of Martyn. Copeland's subsequent vocal turn is moodier, but her strong singing is well suited to the thick, distorted pads and piano stabs that form the bulk of the track. She reappears, just barely, on 'Forgiveness Step 1' and 'Forgiveness Step 2', but in both cases the short, heavily treated samples of her vocals form mere accompaniment to dense productions that surround the her vocal snippets. While 'Step 1' is mostly an intro for the album, 'Step 2' makes an adroit combination of strange samples, vocals, and ethereal pads with hard drums, layered acid and sub-bass lines, and a tightly-structured breakdown to become one of the album's standouts for complexity.

There are a few pieces here more succinctly directed at the floor, but even here he invites intricacies while keeping core composition simple. 'Two Leads And A Computer' accomplishes quite a lot with very litle: it's essentially an evolving drum machine workout that showcases some quite nimble keyboard work from one of the two titular leads, along with careful-but-extreme effects in a few obvious places. This kind of stripped back sophistication has long been one of his strong points, and especially 'Like That' thrives on the ability to add and subtract an array of elements from its well worked drum programs and the nagging sample that gives it its title. Nasty, growling bass and a distorted kick barrel through a brief breakdown, after which a morphing lead enters over several alternating layers of stabs and pads; it gradually goes from piano to fully synthetic, while splaying itself all over the sound stage.

Playing like a combination of its two predecessors that vividly incorporates the production expertise Martyn has accumulated over his decade-long career, The Air Between Words may be short on surprises, but it is rich in finesse and detail. As always, there is a fullness to his work that few producers match in the contemporary era, a fullness that looks back to previous periods in Detroit, Chicago, London and on the continent while remaining resolutely contemporary in sound. Many of the individual elements of a track like closer 'Fashion Skater' are individually obvious – the rising synth hook, the tom line, easily borrowed from any number of old techno records, the heaving bass drops, and even the full piano that enters at halfway – but they're all deployed, layered, and interconnected with such careful attention to compositional detail that they add up to quite a bit more than the individual parts. The same can be said of almost everything here, and indeed of most things Martyn has had a hand in since he began: deeply rooted in dance music's history across genre divides but always facing forward, his sound accomplishes its timelessness and impact from acute attention to detail, and this remains his most distinguishing mark.

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