“North” is going to take many people by surprise, it’s going to seem like Darkstar was an extraterrestrial and incomprehensible entity that landed on planet post-dubstep, and it shouldn’t be like that. Their 2009 12”, which included one of the most surprising –both in originality and in it’s addictive– songs of the year, “Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer”, already heralded an unusual landing, different from what had been heard until then, and above all it indicated that the new direction would be towards pop, getting closer to the label “indie-friendly”. Pop understood as song, although the use Darkstar make of vocals are of metallic texture, like of a cold robot , the tin man from “The Wizard Of Oz” (who thought he had no heart, although he had one bigger and more generous than anyone else). The fact that this record has appeared on Hyperdub can only mean one thing: they’re there because Steve Goodman believes in them and he thinks that, like Burial –when he signed him, that watery texture didn’t fit in with the sonic reality of the time, either, and it caused left the people perplexed as well– they are a valuable project with a sound that will not be repeated, even though they will be copied. So Darkstar are here and they are on this label with an impeccable trajectory because Kode9 wants it that way and because they should be the next step in the evolution of dubstep as an art form. The commitment, for sure, is strong.
The release of “Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer” was a surprise as well because Darkstar’s first steps, back in 2007, didn’t indicate such a sound, either. The first 12”s by the twosome, originally formed by James Young and Aiden Whalley, were very much in a post-garage vein, with a starring role for the vocals, but always in a black music context (soul, funk, etc), passionate and between cascades of notes with golden auras, or within a Jamaican logic, with a strong presence of the dub bass and hints of suspense, like on that “Round Ours” released on Clandestine Cultivations. They were closer to Mala than to Zomby –with whom they shared another 12” on MG77–, and they can never be detached from the dubstep genealogy: they haven’t come from outside with an exotic variety, but they have evolved from within to a place of their own. Right from the start, they used the vocoder as a dramatic effect, but it didn’t sound at all like on “Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer” –which is of course included on “North”–. Here everything changes. Darkstar enter what we could call post-dubstep but with that “post” indicating the same detail as the one in post-rock: the use of elements of dubstep –the break and the bass are distinctive as such, obviously– to make something that doesn’t sound like dubstep. From there the Radiohead connection emerges, although we won’t talk about that right now. This is a love song –a very Ballardian love, by the way; apparently, and unless it’s a very sick inside joke, Whalley is a resophile (from Latin, res, “thing”) and feels sexually attracted to objects (in this case, his computer), and above all it’s a song that refers to deep origins of the synthetic song, when in the sixties and seventies there were engineers and computer experts –from Bruce Haack, the man who made the vocoder popular, to Max Mathews– who looked for a way to make machines sing.
So with Darkstar there is an important idealist background. Deep down it’s another record –and a key record– of the retro-futurist tradition, which is located in a previous time to speculate about how the future would be like from that previous moment on. If Kraftwerk and the early The Human League experienced “nostalgia of the future” (the longing for a romantic, humanist and warm future in its cold appearance, but always seen from the past), Darkstar make the effort to transfer to the era of the dawn of pop with machines to dream about perspectives starting from there. That’s why the record sounds so crude, so foggy, so apparently lo-fi, to the point where it has more of The Normal than of Skream and more of Thomas Leer or Gary Numan than of Ikonika. But it’s not a revivalist album, nor is it a naïve record. It’s dense within its apparent lightness, and it’s dark within its evident emotional impact, which grows with every listening session, as the Darkstar universe grows more transparent. As we said, it’s going to seem like now their music is incomprehensible, but let’s remember what happened ten years ago when Radiohead released “Kid A”. “North” works at the same level: it’s a rupture with the expectations and a dive for an unexpected experimentation. It expands the limits of its genre, and doesn’t settle for what exists already. This record possesses value, in the first place, because of its riskiness: it walks the path from dubstep to the torch song, for example; and it re-imagines –out of context, even without it being revivalist– English synth-pop, a tradition Darkstar want to recover and cultivate, hence the cover version of “Gold”, one of The Human League’s darkest songs.
Beyond that, finally, is the talent. The way the album starts, with piano and undeniably epic strings, with Young singing between laments that could be Thom Yorke’s ( “In The Wings”), and the way it evolves (and it evolves like that, and sorry for the romantic cliché, but this would be English electronica from the early nineteenth century had Ada Lovelace created a synthesiser instead of a calculator: like someone who strolls through the empty city, on the verge of winter, cold and in pain but with a big heart), “North” opens it’s wings in an honest way. Remember it’s to the north, following the polar star, that we have to refer to in order to not get lost. This record, damned, wants to be a compass. It’s never imperial, majestic, but that would have been a mistake: it would have been an impressive debut but without depth. However, “North” unfolds silently, calmly, until showing its treasure. It’s a box that won’t open, the key has been lost and it’s hard to find a lever. Then the sequenced pulses of “Two Chords” appear, the possible indie hit with semi-tribal percussion “Under One Roof”, the suspense score of “Ostkruez”, the delicious retro-futurism of “When It’s Gone” and even a waltz ( “Dear Heartbeat”) which contrasts with the almost industrial violence of “North” (the track), and which is the moment on which Darkstar gets closest to another inimitable album that follows it’s own rules, Portishead’s “Third”. This is a debut that can be rationalised as much as you want, but in order to understand it fully, you have to open your heart and feel it. And if you feel it, you will understand it all. There is no more. It’s a special one, like Mourinho.