Pete Holslin will pass the Grey Poupon
Andy Stott can bring drama to even the most mundane tasks. That much was clear the other day when I was listening to his new album, Faith in Strangers, while locked in rush hour traffic. It was a rare rainy day in L.A., and the red beams of brake lights streaked along for miles amidst the smoggy grey skies and pattering mist. Then, over the stereo came the track “No Surrender,” its relentless synth cascades giving way to a war-like percussive tattoo. Suddenly I felt like I was riding down that doomed highway in the second season of The Walking Dead, trying among thousands to escape a city overtaken by the zombie hordes.
Darkness and dread has long figured into Stott’s dub-techno. You can see it on the noir-ish cover of his first album, 2006’s Merciless, and you can really hear it on his 2012 masterpiece, Luxury Problems. But it would be doing Stott’s richly layered music a disservice to say it’s nothing but a roller-coaster ride of psychological thrills. His depth and range really shows on Faith in Strangers. Though the album is full of hard beats and damaged textures, it also features truly tender moments, and at its core it’s guided less by textural decay than by a strong sense of exploration and discovery.
Luxury Problems had a way of creeping around and ambushing eardrums that I really loved, and for better or worse, I haven’t had the same experience listening to Faith in Strangers. The former album’s opening
track, “Numb,” was brazen in its groove—opening with the alien/angelic murmurs of singer Alison Skidmore (Stott’s former piano teacher, who returns on Faith in Strangers to put in yet another beautiful performance), the track settles into a clipped vocal pattern before doubling down with the most intense bass throbs I’ve ever heard. By comparison, the bass on highlight “Violence” is more like a dense vapor. You can practically feel its weight in your hands, but while it eventually bubbles over into drum distortion, initially you can’t tell if it’s hazardous or not.
“Violence” is certainly one of the hardest tracks Stott’s ever made; in it, Skidmore’s vocals balance between fragile wails and demonic, Black Lodge-style murmurs as the intensity swells with a murderously steady trap beat. However, other tracks are more subtle and restrained—none more so than the title track, an Aphex Twin-meets-The Cure jam in which Skidmore dances through a dreamy vocal melody over a languid bass-line. This one remains relatively stable over six and a half minutes, but the color comes from its rippling layers of vocal wisps and drum knob twists, which just go to show that some of the finest rewards to be drawn from this record come from the tiny changes you’ll only notice upon close inspection.
So, what direction is this all heading in? There’s a strong sense of forward motion to many tracks. “How It Was” rides on a roly-poly synth line while “Damage” bounces along like a demented club jam, a piece of junkyard percussion cracking at the start of each bar. With these tracks I picture Stott’s workspace as a rusted-out factory, outfitted with machines bearing modular dials and big red power buttons.
As far as movement goes, though, the album’s most powerful tune is “Science & Industry.” It’s built on the chassis of an old-school-sounding drum machine, and the BMPs are kicked to a frantic pace. Metal clinks in one ear, and the bass follows a slow pulse. Synths rise across the horizon, conjuring thoughts of the opening line
in William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Skidmore, for her part, is game—her voice high and bright, echoing softly through the atmosphere.
When this track comes on in my car, I know it’s time to hit the gas and roar down that proverbial doomed highway, ready for whatever comes next.