Album Review: Darkstar - North (Hyperdub)

Now with added moodiness, it's ta-ra dubstep, and ayup '80s trans-Pennine synths

The north of England, with its coal dust-stained mythologies, has a legacy of producing pop forged from mechanical parts. OMD, The Human League, John Foxx: all answered their industrial geography with synthesized music; grey skies equal cold synths. A cliché maybe, but like how music documentaries will always show a shot of an autobahn to the strains of Kraftwerk, one based in truth.

There are times when James Young and Aiden Whalley look like they’re aligning Darkstar with such a tradition in a bid to escape the London scene which nurtured them. Their first single is a refashioning of The Human League’s ‘You Remind Me Of Gold’ from the ‘Mirror Man’ EP into the stooping ‘Gold’; ‘Under One Roof’’s wheezing, bleakly ambient opening feels like it’s stripped out of OMD’s ‘Organisation’; they’ve called their album ‘North’. Y’know, that kind of thing.

Of the 10 tracks here, just one retains the south London syncopations of the Hyperdub 12”s for which they’re known - their hit ‘Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer’. Universally loved a year ago, its fine-grained garage melancholia sits uneasily next to the brooding, introverted pop of Darkstar version 2.0, an outfit who’ve swapped making bangers to lose yourself to for making a record to lose yourself in. The titular track is the album’s distillation, with industrial snare rolls which recall Portishead’s ‘Machine Gun’ paired with billowing, fibrous pads given to ripping at any moment.

When it’s late there’s only you”, sings James Buttery, summing up ‘North’’s half-lit angst. Sometimes the bleak textures work their way into your head like a dull ache; it’s particularly acute on ‘Ostkruez’, with a lingering mood balanced on ambient piano chords that mutate into porous minor key synths, like a Vangelis soundtrack shackled to a tragic reality.

Of course, whether you like this new, claustrophobic Darkstar is entirely dependent on how you felt about their remix of ‘Videotape’ in 2009 – ‘Deadness’’s skulking minimalism descends into picked guitar strings straight out of The xx school of emotional potency, its cut-up vocals entrenched within the rimshot percussion creating the kind of antsy landscape that Thom Yorke would drag his existential heels through. Ultimately, though, Darkstar’s maturation from dubstep’s next big things into modern pop classicists continues to intrigue. Dubstep will miss them; they won’t miss dubstep.

Louise Brailey

Click here to get your copy of Darkstar’s ‘North’ from Rough Trade Shops.

7 / 10

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