Darkstar: North

With acts such as Kode9 and Burial on its roster, Hyperdub has been responsible for more than its share of genre re-invention in contemporary music-making. But not all of its roster artists are as concerned with radical advances—Darkstar a case in point. On its debut album North, the UK-based outfit (production and composing duo James Young and Aiden Whalley plus vocalist James Buttery) presents a brand of polished electronic pop that largely eschews innovation—unless one counts the distortion treatments liberally applied to Buttery's vocals (hear, for example, how his voice is scattered by ripples of static during the bluesy anthem “Two Chords”) and the way the group's synthetic sound is slightly distressed by glitches and noise—though that hardly counts as a crippling flaw.

Modestly elegiac in tone, “In The Wings” opens the album with three minutes of plaintive piano melodies, strings, and synthetics wrapped around Buttery's stutter-inflected vocal. “Aidy's Girl is a Computer” is as alluring today as it was when it thrust Darkstar into the limelight midway through 2009. One is charmed anew by the contrast between the song's iridescent synthetic colour and its wistful, even mournful, melodies. The title track later does something much the same in pairing an aggressive military snare pattern with a yearning vocal line.

On occasion, one hears faint echoes of Darkstar's precursors in the album's songs. During the melancholy “Deadness,” Buttery's voice has a warbly quality that makes it sound vaguely similar to Marc Bolan's. The combination of lush synthetic atmospheres and winsome vocalizing in “Under One Roof” suggests one could conceivably regard Darkstar as a distant descendant of OMD, and “Gold,” being a cover of the obscure Human League song “You Remind Me of Gold,” directly references that legacy.

There's an oft-downtrodden quality to the material (nowhere more audible than during “Dear Heartbeat” and the baroque-gothic closer, an update of “Squeeze My Lime” now titled “When It's Gone”) that can perhaps be traced to the album's creation (in an interview with Kode9, Young acknowledged that “making an album in a dingy two bed in Clapton was overwhelming and the hardest thing [he] ever had to do”). Described most simply, what North offers is forty eminently satisfying minutes of hummable pop songs dressed up in a glossy wardrobe of piano and analogue synthesizer melodies, heartfelt crooning, drum machine beats, and percussive textures, and while that may not be revolutionary it's more than enough to earn North its recommendation.

October 2010