Joker - 'The Mainframe'

R&B, dubstep and soul form an uneasy mix on the Bristol producer's second album

  • Release Date 16 Feb, 2015
  • Producer Joker
  • Record Label Kapsize
Bristol’s Liam McLean rose to national attention during the dubstep gold rush of 2009, but the man they call Joker wouldn’t be forced into anyone’s niche. His opulent, melody-stuffed productions owed as much to video-game music and American R&B as they did to the gloomy London bass fraternity, and he even had a name for his music – the evocative but abstract ‘purple wow’.

Despite some killer tunes, such as 2008 Rustie collaboration ‘Play Doe’ and 2009 Hyperdub single ‘Digidesign’, he’s struggled with a full-length. His 2010 debut for 4AD, ‘The Vision’, a guest-packed blend of bass music and loverman soul, fell awkwardly between posts.

‘The Mainframe’, on Joker’s own label Kapsize, suggests he hasn’t really learned his lessons. Sure, it has its moments. ‘Boss Mode’ comes on like climatic video-game fight music with a bit of ornate thrash-guitar detailing. ‘Midnight’ is a bass destroyer powered by super-saturated synths that could crack concrete, but swerves cliché by keeping a feminine presence at its core. “I’ve dreamed of this love for so long…” yearns an unnamed diva in a rare lull from the low-end quake, as McLean lets his fingers dance across silky keys.

However, things come unstuck when Joker swings for romance. ‘Lucy’ finds Skream collaborator Sam Frank inviting the girl of the title to “get on top” in honey-dripping falsetto. It comes just short of sticky palms, perhaps because Joker’s productions are designed to get women in the club, not exclude them; but the effect is cheesy not smooth.

The record’s occasional pretensions towards the cinematic also flounder. A mid-album suite split into distinct ‘scenes’ called things like ‘Neon City’ and ‘Spirit Ruins’ mixes up those familiar glowing synths with tropical birdsong and trilling pipes. It’s been said that Joker’s music is a treat for those with synaesthesia, the medical condition that lets one ‘hear’ colours. When the shades are coming this diverse, though, you worry it might feel a bit like being assaulted with several cans of silly string.

The final track is a morose thing titled ‘Mixed Emotions’. And that rather seems to sum 'The Mainframe' up.

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