Renato Pagnani invented street fraiche.
Electronic music is crowded. Buzzwords like footwork and wonky are tossed around in reference to specific sounds explored by a few artists. Starkey made his name defining “street bass” over the last few years—an American-led permutation of electronic music — taking the suffocating lower-end of dubstep and the syncopated snap of hip-hop and combining them with colorful swatches of melody. And his third full-length, Orbits, might be the realization of yet another new sub-subgenre: space bass. If that phrase doesn’t make you immediately close this tab, you might make room on your year-end lists for one more album.
Starkey has also had the gift for marrying a keen sense of melody with a clobbering rumble and Orbits finds the Philadelphia-based producer blowing his sound up to galactic proportions. Yet it retains a physical immediacy, tethering the terrestrial to nothingness. But Starkey’s tracks are far from passive things — they’re giant, clobbering masses that frighten and delight. “Renegade Starship” initially crawls forward with vacillating synths and ominous bass. It never quite explodes, but it approaches maximum hull pressure. “Command” is built upon a trap-ish rhythm and a robotic vocal sample that recalls a malfunctioning Hal 9000.
A lot of dubstep-influenced music lacks dynamics. It’s often all “OMGICAN’TFEELMYFACEBOOMPOWCRRSSSSSSSSHHHLOUDNESSWAR. Brute force and no subtlety. Starkey’s compositions have always avoided this, but this sense of dynamics has never been as apparent as on Orbits. There are full tracks that throw neither nasty looks nor uppercuts, like “G V Star (Part 1),” where synthetic strings and glockenspiels swirl in ambient territories, before Starkey’s plaintive vocals are shot into space. Sure, it’s a set up for “G V Star (Part 2),” where things go supernova and entire solar systems are destroyed, but it makes the maelstrom more effective and works as its own composition.
Of course, there are plenty of moments on Orbits where the bass overrides all systems and the goal is simply to leave nothing but dust in its wake. “and Then Got Built the Cosmos…” is a grime track through and through, where brittle laser blasts and crunchy percussion pummel relentlessly. “The Shuttle” is a twitchy collection of burst-fire synths and Lex Luger-like melodies. Those that would classify Starkey as a dubstep producer would do well to listen to just how much his tracks sound like a twisted version of southern rap beats, albeit with a focus on the interstellar.
This is something else Starkey has always been good at: subverting expectations. He ends Orbits by turning “Distant Star,” in a move that’s more or less unprecedented in his career, into an honest-to-god four-on-the-floor stomper. After an album’s worth of jerky, misaligned rhythms, it’s a glorious moment, but it’s further misdirection. With about forty seconds left, Starkey finally says, “Fuck it!” and dives head-first into screeching dubstep. And then Orbits ends.