The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

Secondhand Memories: Kai Whiston Quiet As Kept, F.O.G.
Skye Butchard , July 21st, 2022 08:41

Part documentary, part myth, the new album from UK electronic musician Kai Whiston pays tribute to his young raver mother

World-building is all about implying infinite possibilities just out of view, and giving your audience the inspiration to fill in the gaps. Kai Whiston is a master of this kind of world building. His slick and muscular electronic tracks often take place off-world, on far away alien vistas that we project our own stories onto. He plays it fast and loose with genre. Songs shapeshift. They usually don’t settle on a sound that could place them in a particular time period or scene. He’s dabbled in everything from post-rock to UK Bass, all presented in a zany and overblown package. These are songs as sandboxes.

Now, there are two characters living in that sandbox. Whiston steps into frame, and makes himself part of the story. He brings with him his mother, Helene Whiston, who’s love of Massive Attack, Orbital and The Prodigy shapes the record’s huge presentation. She sits in front of him on the cover, eyes closed, wrapped in a protective alien gauze.

Kai Whiston was born into dance music in the late 90s. His parents were young ravers from the New Age Traveller Community. It was a life that brought with it addiction and instability. Whiston’s father died prematurely when he was a baby, and his mother left the community to make a better life for them. Through an emotive collection of warped dance tracks, Whiston reflects on his upbringing, all while operating in the background. 

Take the opening track, ‘Between Lures’, where Whiston’s vocal is smothered underneath a driving breakbeat and vivid strings. This obfuscation is a technique cleverly used on last year’s Drayan! to emphasise scale, loudness and emotional indirectness. Here, we lean in closer to parse his feelings.

 It’s a trick that pays off later, when Helene Whiston’s voice recording is played bare. The story she’s telling is impossible to mistake: “We didn’t have any gas or money, and I was boiling baby bottles on a fire in the rain. I just thought I can’t do this to you. I wanted you to have a better start, because that’s when it started going wrong… I was right babe, wasn’t I, to get us out of there.”

The raw, autobiographical approach gives new weight to these fantastical electronic explorations, which become a conversation between his mother’s early years and his own. The songs themselves are melodic but tough, dreamlike but physical, in the way the best dance music can be. Most impressively, they dive into 90s dance sounds without becoming simple nostalgia or dogged recreations. The songs here function as reimagined secondhand memories, the future looking back at the past and reaching out a hand. 

The record also manages to be both danceable and deeply internal. ‘Q’ (featuring Pussy Riot) is a nimble, cutesy hardcore track that grows more pummelling as it progresses, while the far-off vocal lines emphasise the introspection of this material. On the multiphase ‘T.F.J.’, Whiston flits through tape decks. He stumbles upon ravers joking around while listening to ‘Out of Space’, sandwiched between a high-speed jungle banger and a churning dubstep cut. Elsewhere, electronic feedback wails and contorts on ‘Peace Convoy’, lamenting the events suggested in its title. 

While there’s still sonic playfulness and variety, Quiet as Kept, F.O.G. offers a new sense of cohesion, both through its heartfelt approach to genre inversions and its thematic throughlines. As enjoyable as Whiston’s early material was on Kai Whiston Bitch and No World As Good As Mine, the reflective and impressionistic palette fits the story being told. 

There’s a dynamism to these songs that only amplifies their emotional origins. ‘Carrier Signal’ (featuring Eden) threatens to implode on its blaring chorus. Vocal fragments struggle to peek through the noise, before the track melts away completely. On a smudged acoustic outro, these characters are left bare and exposed to the elements. Later on, ‘Div Era’ explores ghostly ambience, choral textures and tape disintegration, but it’s the plaintive string arrangements that produce the most chills. 

‘Lux 3’ is a comforting lullaby from an alternate universe, and a poignant reconnection with Whiston’s longtime collaborator and confidant Iglooghost. The two share a chemistry that makes it hard to unpick who has contributed what. It highlights the sensitivity and restraint that colours the album, even through layers of distortion. 

These explorations have all been leading to the closer, a ten-minute ode to his mother, named after her birthday. It begins with an extended phone call, where Helene Whiston recounts her first experiences within rave culture. She talks about being amazed by the UV art, the fashion sense, and the community. There’s so much wonder and possibility in it, mirrored by the heartstring bed of synths beneath. Her voice is swallowed up, but the whirring energy of the track carries all the feeling in her words. “Through the grief, I kept it still” her son repeats from inside the noise. The song opens up into mournful and euphoric textures. It’s a last rave for them to share together. 

Quiet as Kept, F.O.G. is part myth, part documentary. Whiston uses the form of dance music to understand his past with more openness. He makes the mature step to view this story not just through the potentially myopic lens of his own perspective, but through a wider snapshot of a lost community. We all reach a point where we begin to view our parents as regular people, with their own histories and human flaws. By retracing their steps together, the mother and son find comfort and clarity in this abandoned landscape. 

None of the magic of Whiston’s world building is lost by centring on a deeply personal narrative. How could it be when so many of the songs bang like they do? Instead, this internal voyage uncovers the infinite possibilities that were lost within displaced Traveller communities. More than that, it rebuilds them anew so they can be remembered.