Listening to Alex Cowles' first album, 2009's Metafiction, was a bit like walking into a deep freeze. Every sound echoed out into a pool of aural fog, clinging close to the bone like cold. Just like life's most intense experiences, it could be both overwhelming and numbing, as he drowned almost every form of bass music from jungle to garage in swells of dub techno reverb.
The shroud of effects also had the byproduct of engendering anonymity. Tracks that were undeniably beautiful were also faceless, a blur of rounded shapes and softened textures. He's been prolific in the interim, and every release since has seen him sharpen those blunt edges into finer prods.
Indeed, the first thing I noticed when I put Fading on for the first time was the sudden leap in textures. It was like going from VHS to hi-definition. Every sound on the record is carefully rendered, lovingly placed and precisely mixed; Cowles evades the smokescreen of anonymity by making everything momentous and immense. The clouds of hiss on the sprawling opener "Silent Witness" submerge rather than merely float, and the album's estimable tsunami of low-end (the towering centrepiece "Prism" is like gas floating on tectonic plates) is impressively brutal for an LP that otherwise sounds like it's tip-toeing over everything.
Though quite a few tracks have a zero-gravity swing to them, for the most part Fading is like Autonomic techno: bathed in luxurious Detroit reverb but with a distinctly European ideal of precision and repetition. "El Spirito" is an early highlight, with a chugging chord progression and vocals that sprout from the end of each bar like little ribbons of light. Cowles' work could easily approach over-saccharine territory, but he's got a talent for folding in vocals and live instrument samples seamlessly. It works best on "Everyone Is Moving," the album's most "dub techno" moment as a skeletal beat skims puddles of spongy, liquid synth, with horn squalls echoing through the track like a mournful foghorn.
Arctic landscapes and vast tundras of reverb aren't Fading's only feature; "Deep Into It" has a brisk Todd Edwards-like shuffle while "Our Little Secret" and "Cruise" play with dubstep patterns, the latter sounding woozy wounded like a stumbling, blood-sapped early Black Dog. But as much as Cowles escapes dub techno's persistent narcolepsy, Fading is still far too lengthy to be anything but a major investment to get through. He clearly takes the idea of the album seriously, but in his quest to make a monumental statement he's gotten a bit lost in his own musical verbosity. For every standout moment on Fading there's a few that drag on past their welcome, and while there's never anything less than pleasant, it's not the near-perfect LP it could have been. As is, Fading presents Cowles' best work yet, and a much-needed step into more personal territory for an artist whose talents previously seemed to lay on the surface level. Suddenly, his deep freeze feels a lot warmer.