Sach O’s got this or Roc Marci for album of the year.
Hyperdub can do no wrong right now. Even amidst a landscape of forward thinking labels constantly reinventing the genres they’re operating in, Kode 9’s imprint stands out in its dedication to absolutely bleeding edge sounds. This year alone has seen a synth colored garage album by Ikonika, loads of dark side funky singles that twist house into an altogether new mutation and an upcoming Grime release by the genre’s #1 don Terror Danjah. And now…there’s Darkstar’s North.
Abandoning all of Dubstep’s formal concerns (tempo, DJ friendliness, bass fetish) but retaining the genre’s darkness and outsider worldview, Darkstar have forged the anti-pop album of the year. A collection of cold and fractured songs about alienation in the modern world, North initially seems closer to Radiohead than say…Rusko but to celebrate it solely because it’s “a serious piece of music” in the rockist tradition rather than a collection of flighty dance tunes would be a mistake. Rather, it overcomes the staleness of rock and the repetitiveness of EDM by digging beneath the surface of the sounds it plays with and by combining them to revelatory results.
The overarching inspiration is synth-pop but whereas contemporary camp-pop acts play up that genre’s grating cheesiness, Darkstar find a hidden emotional core that’s surprisingly devoid of pretension. Listen to the Human League’s “Gold” then listen to Darkstar’s cover: there’s more at going on here than nostalgia. Both versions play up the man-machine futurism inherent in computer music, but Darkstar avoid their inspiration’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge smugness in favor of a despondent directness. Like their label mate Burial, the band’s greatest trick is to take unfashionable and downright corny pop music and imbue it with a sense of importance and resonance so powerful as to alter it completely.
Whereas Untrue rescued 2-step by highlighting the latent pain in R&B vocals, Darkstar succeed by glitching up and slowing down sounds mostly associated with the coked up 80’s to better reflect the vicious historical comedown from that party that are contemporary times. They do so by grafting these sounds to a host of other musical elements: Shades of FWD>>’s bass dread, 70’s art rock ambition, Factory Records’ angular punk, Portishead’s darker side and OK Computer’s desperate social commentary. That it somehow sounds like none of the above is a testament to the band’s originality and approach to music making.
Originally set to be a collection of robotic garage tunes in the vein of their hit single (and PotW favorite) “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer,” the first version of North was scrapped and the band spent half a year building a new album from scratch by focusing on songwriting, incorporating a vocalist and essentially reinventing Darkstar as a band. The result is an album where every song feels vital and necessary, created not for the sake of songwriting but to express angst increasingly common in a world gone wrong. As brilliant as the aforementioned” Aidy’s Girl” was, it feels almost quaint and prepackaged when sandwiched in between “Deadness” and “Two Chords,” some of North’s most haunting material, songs that breathe and stand on their own regardless of genre tags. It’s this directness and honesty that separate Darkstar from the pack: rather than attempt to fit into a box or invent a new one for journalists to pigeonhole them into (Witch House anyone?), they’ve simply made a brilliant album that’s approachable from any angle: pop, rock, dubstep, etc. At a time when critically acclaimed, subterranean pop threatens disappear up its own nu-flannel-covered ass, North more than any other album sounds like an honest reflection of the world in 2010.–Sach O