Much has been made of the radical change in direction heralded by Darkstar’s debut album North, and rightly so. Originally a London-based duo, they’ve released a string of superb 12”s over the last few years that culminated in the extraordinary ‘Aidy’s Girl is a Computer’, a track that managed to stand out even on a compilation as uniformly excellent as Five Years of Hyperdub. Their style loosely fitted in with the prevailing post-dubstep/future garage trends, but each release saw them tweaking their formula and pushing their sound forward, hypnotic and bass-heavy one minute, limber and danceable the next.
However, with the release of the much-anticipated North, Darkstar have retreated back into themselves. Apparently a whole album’s worth of material was scrapped last year, and it tells: the dominant tone of North is uncertainty, insecurity, even apathy. This record is characterised by predominantly downtempo, introspective electronica, influenced by ’80s electro/synth-pop (one track is a cover of The Human League’s ‘You Remind Me of Gold’). Significantly, the duo have added a third member (James Buttery) as a vocalist, and his somewhat frail-sounding voice grounds the record in conventional pop and re-inforces the theme of isolation and uncertainty.
‘In The Wings’ opens the album with slow-burning, mood-setting atmospherics: you can almost hear the rain pattering on the window of a gloomy two-bedroom house in the background. The aforementioned Human League cover is an impressive one, its piano figures winding around Buttery’s nostalgic vocals, while ‘Deadness’ shimmers subtly, the soundtrack to a drowsy morning. North essentially feels like a mood-piece more than a collection of songs, and a very specific mood at that.
Even so, the best results come when they shake themselves out of their stupor. ‘Aidy’s Girl’ is included here, and still sounds like nothing else around: a melancholic dance track haunted by a robotic voice, you can imagine Kraftwerk nodding their heads in sage approval. ‘Under One Roof’ is an exquisitely produced and arranged track, synths swelling over skittering, hypnotic percussion. ‘2 Chords’, meanwhile, calls to mind Mount Kimbie with its enveloping, undulating arrangement.
North is ultimately a qualified triumph: a bit too downbeat and introspective for its own good at times, but with plenty to like and a few tracks to love. Consider it a tentative 7 rather than a resounding 8, and let’s hope they’ve gotten through their existential crisis.