Over the past few years, what used to be called dubstep has been tugged mercilessly in all directions. But while Hyperdub duo (now trio) Darkstar has been moving farther away from traditional dubstep, North is by anyone's expectations a shocking digression. There's no denying the considerable appeal of an album full of "Aidy's Girl Is a Computer" soundalikes, but such a shimmering mirage simply falls away in the face of the stunning reality of North.
It's quite tempting to figure North as sharing in the dubstep flirtation of their earlier work, but in truth, it's far removed in all but mood (and a few familiar sounds). Aside from a welcome reprise of "Aidy's Girl," beats are few and far between. Instead, we're treated to softly pulsing synth-pop in which Darkstar drape everything in warmed-over tones, ebbing exhaustedly with human misgivings and inner turmoil. Even when Darkstar are at their most mechanical and desperate, there's something comforting and enveloping about North; it's like commiserating with a friend over a piping cup of cocoa. The soothing synth intro of "Deadness" is permeated by corrosive timestretching, a damaged analogue tape that threatens final death with every cyclic distortion, while the funereality of "Ostkreuz" morphs into a mournfully soothing synth that hesitantly chokes back tears.
Once the initial shock of its pop aspect wears off, North is most intriguing in its painstaking use of sound design, plugins, and effects. This centers especially around the vocals—from new member James Buttery—which are obsessively detailed and nuanced. They seamlessly double up for a hollow, glossy sound devoid of affect, embracing uncomfortable machine-assisted honesty over melodrama. His voice flickers unsteadily, as if its presence is anxiously impermanent, uncertain. Sometimes it seems as if Buttery's voice could suddenly sublimate in a gesture of exhausted defeat, as in the overwhelming melancholia of the incredible "Two Chords" where the vocals waver as if unable to fully contain the sadness they convey. Other times it sounds as if they're going to be trampled under the angry, snapping computers rising from beneath.
Despite its scant 45 minute duration, North is a dense, complex album that never lets up even in its sparest moments. Nearly every track is smothered in some variation of strings or choral sounds, but it adds to the suffocating melancholy instead of needless theatricality. Most stunning of all is closer "When It's Gone," a cinematic re-imagining of Hyperdub debut "Squeeze My Lime." Roughly halving the tempo, North finally turns into the sensually swooning funeral procession it's been threatening all along, subverting the hopeful progression of "Under One Roof" to devastating effect. When the churning nausea adjourns less than three minutes in, the coda that bubbles out of the silence hits like a punch in the gut—solely piano and vocals desperately pleading "I won't forget you when you're gone" like a mantra. That the album's most riveting moment is also its simplest is not a refutation of the intricate complexity that came before, but only an affirmation that Darkstar seem to know exactly what they're doing while fumbling through unfamiliar territory.
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Tracklist: Darkstar - North 01. In the Wings
04. Aidy's Girl Is a Computer
05. Under One Roof
06. Two Chords
09. Dear Heartbeat
10. When It's Gone
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