Popular culture is overwhelmed with humourless, oversaturated electronic music that sounds like sucking a lemon, or perhaps eating bitter gourd. Extreme darkness can be combined with surprising good humour—a little like the tone in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men—and ugliness doesn’t have to sound sloppy.
I write this because of the music of Andy Stott, a dub techno artist from Manchester, which sounds like crusted cement excavated with a blunt instrument, and then bludgeoned into formal composition through excoriation. Rather than being precision-engineered or assembled from constituent parts, his music is hewn from granite or concrete; or blown and then manhandled—like glass—into recognisable forms. You get the impression Mr. Stott gets a damn good workout when making his music. And yet for all this, plenty of his work shares a feel-good filthiness with El-P’s productions as part of Run The Jewels, rather than coming across as genuinely malevolent. There is truly beauty in brawn—and not all of it comes by way of the guest vocals from Alison Skidmore (who used to teach Mr. Stott the piano).
On “Sleepless”, from his 2012 album Luxury Problems, a caustic fog of ambience and slithering, slippery FX slips somehow, seductively, into a lithe rhythm which recalls chugging machinery, like an even more demented take on Matthew Dear’s Black City LP. Snippets of human bleating and pleading resemble the clanging protestations of broken machinery, trapped in a web of interlocking cogs and turbines. The effect is mesmerising, so dark you want to smile at its sheer cojones. At the track’s close, this intense mechanism simply wafts into blank space.
Music this muscular shouldn’t sound on the verge of dystrophy, but time and again Mr. Stott repeats the trick with alacrity. Perhaps it is to this quality that we should credit Ms. Skidmore, who sounds like an unwitting dancefloor goddess. On the concluding track on Luxury Problems, “Leaving”, her liquid trails alternately soar and swoop around the beatless music. Occasionally, a hi-hat ticks like a bicycle wheel spinning whilst airborne—the perfect metaphor for Mr. Stott’s self-destructing music.
Two contrary trends exhibited on both Luxury Problems and its follow-up, Faith In Strangers, are worth zoning in on. The first is of grime-inflected dirt. A prime example would be “Damage” (so aptly named), on which grotty, bit-crushed beats collide with a genuinely filthy distorted bass-line. Earlier on Faith In Strangers, “No Surrender” is a totally different take on this principle, with a passage of cascading Vangelis-style keys violently cutting out, to be replaced by a similarly visceral beat. Eventually, both elements combine in an exhilarating style that demands to be played at punishing volumes.
And then there is Mr. Stott’s uncanny knack for writing title-tracks that serve as tender manifestos for enlightened populism. On “Luxury Problems”, the beat is slinky and in-the-pocket, the allure is musty and velvety, rather like the music of Massive Attack (as are the occasional interpolations of a Middle Eastern sample). A stray bass guitar makes an appearance, muted and tangibly ‘there’, in the room, beside you. On “Faith In Strangers”, the bass guitar is also present, but it wends round a twinkly composition that has more in keeping with something like Aphex Twin’s “Flim”. In another universe, it would be a crossover hit.
Directly after the earlier album’s title-track comes “Up The Box”, a jungle-indebted composition of gut-churning ferocity, that nonetheless tips its hat to the type of experimentation Amon Tobin carried out from the mid-1990s until 2002’s Out From Where.
A year later, on My Bloody Valentine’s comeback album, m b v, Kevin Shields answered a similar question to Mr. Stott’s—’What happens when you bring jungle into the 21st century?’—to radically different ends. Songs such as “In Another Way” and “Nothing Is” are certainly weird and progressive, but they also sound a little dated.
No such fate befalls two other comeback albums of sorts. Like Mr. Stott, The Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) make deeply kinetic electronic music that retains wit in the face of weirdness. They were blessed with crossover appeal through the mid-1990s and then, with “Galvanize”, in the mid-Noughties.
On Born In The Echoes, released earlier this year, they recapture the dynamism and ‘What happens if we do this?’ playfulness that characterised their earlier work. The album’s opener, “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted”, pairs searing acidic synths with a tumbling, rumbling beat, before cutting seamlessly into “Go”, a superior update to “Galvanize” which, like that hit, features vocals from Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. Elsewhere, there are uniquely charming takes on dancehall (“Just Bang”); the type of music that plays during spinning classes (“Reflexion”); and on the closer, “Wide Open”, the beatific synth-pop that New Order once nailed, then ruined, then recaptured (see below). How does such a disparate set of aesthetics coalesce? Much rests in the music’s humanity; the undeniable feeling of having been created by brothers, at ease in their own company.
When I first heard Born In The Echoes I had no idea New Order were returning to the album format, having been touring with an altered line-up (including their original keyboardist, Gillian Gilbert). Their last decade was one of despoliation of their own legacy. Which is why it’s so thrilling that Music Complete, released last month, lives up to its title. If Cut Copy reached their acme by mining New Order’s schtick, Music Complete sees the senior outfit return the favour, building on the formulæ of guitars-plus-synths (in which “Regret” begat “Lights & Music”) and synths-plus-utopia (in which “Blue Monday” begat “Pharaohs & Pyramids”) to produce an album of dazzling, euphoric paranoia and tongue-in-cheek future-shock, with the exact same ratio of hits to miss as the great New Order albums of yore.
In the paranoia folder, file away “Singularity” and “Unlearn This Hatred”, skittish and frazzled songs that give the lie to the idea that this is no country for old men. (In a further twist, the latter of these songs is produced by Mr. Rowlands from The Chemical Brothers.) For the latter folder, dog-ear “Tutti Frutti”, a ripe and house-y number with a darkly intoned Italian voiceover, and its companion piece “People On The High Line”, the peak-Bloomberg musical equivalent of an “I Love New York” t-shirt or a photograph of the skyline from the Top Of The Rock.
All New Order albums must have some hokey moments, and Music Complete is no exception. “Stray Dog”, narrated by Iggy Pop (IGGY POP!), is parodic; “Superheated” (featuring Brandon Flowers of The Killers (BRANDON FLOWERS OF THE KILLERS!)) is as cheesy and hole-filled as Emmental. But elsewhere, at the points of inflection where they could have veered into grimace-inducing territory, they deploy the minimum of good-taste to retain our grace. And so “Nothing But A Fool”, in spite of its ethnic mysticism (like a latter-day slice of queasiness from Beady Eye), feels gargantuan rather than monolithic; and “Plastic”, revelling in its Hi-NRG beat, takes its place in the pantheon of New Order classics, distilling Cut Copy’s “Sun God” into a masterpiece half its length, as opposed to fading into obscurity.
Music Complete could be a descriptor for the vertically-integrated genre that Andy Stott, The Chemical Brothers, and New Order inhabit. At once groundbreaking, stridently of their makers, and occasionally populist, they take music made with electronics and set the controls for the heart of the sun. But that’s not one of the ways they show their age.