For bands tackling a debut release, the right path is often the simplest one. At their best, first albums thrive on instinct and naivete, which in many cases render them free of cynicism and the weight of later expectation. Darkstar's North, however, is an exception to this rule. Born of tension, frustration, and a painstaking re-evaluation of sound itself, it is a heart-rending, 40 minute argument for not taking the easy way out.
With the contemporary club scene at its most fractured in years, Darkstar have for the last 12 months been cited as the answer to the vexed question of where electronic music will go next. This is in large part thanks to the early singles Need You and Aidy's Girl is a Computer. Laid down last year by the London-based duo of Aiden Whalley and James Young, Aidy's Girl in particular provided a nuanced and emotionally literate alternative to conventional crowd-pleasing rhythms, by way of shuffling 2-step production and vocals created on a rudimentary Apple voice simulator. Following glowing reviews (the American music website Pitchfork declared the song "one of the most tonally interesting tracks of the year"), the two men initially planned a whole album of similarly pared down Ballardian romanticism.
However, such a record was not to be. Against the backdrop of an unusually bitter London winter and with 12 complete tracks on their hands, Darkstar scrapped the entire project. Eventually Whalley and Young decided to journey further than the limits of their laptops, enlisting the vocalist James Buttery to begin a new work that would later become North. In addition to the inclusion of human vocals, an extended period of close listening and cultural exploration provided the foundations for this second attempt.
North's influences include late-period Radiohead, 1980s synthpop and Duncan Jones's award-winning sci-fi movie Moon. Despite a certain debt to the to the abstract techno of Actress and Kyle Hall, the result is surprising. The only song to survive the cull of Darkstar 1.0 is Aidy's Girl and the rest is not dance music at all (or at least, not the kind you can actually dance to). Standing proud among the new tracks is Gold. A cover of an obscure B-side by the Human League, it is a hauntingly beautiful hymn of dislocation. A theremin howls with slowly increasing panic, drum fills click and jitter, and a central piano melody rings out with dead-eyed certainty. The effect is unsettling and deeply melancholy. While a great deal of synthpop, from OMD to Japan, addresses similar themes of isolation, Darkstar's vision is far bleaker than its predecessors. So much so, in fact, that this version of the song seems to revel in its ability to twist the already frayed nerves of the original.
Steve Goodman, the owner of Hyperdub, the South London independent record label to which Darkstar are signed, has described listening to the group's early work as "like hearing circuitry cry". This deft simile is now even more accurate. Though many tracks were written on live instruments, all the sounds on North are machine-made: tuned, detuned and refracted through an array of filters until shrouded in banks of eerie mist. By drawing on the shadowy side of 1980s pop, Darkstar recall an era when musical futurism - then exhibited in stabs of now-redundant synthesisers - offered imaginative respite from conservatism, both political and artistic. As Buttery sings: "Even though there was no sun today/And you are a thousand miles away/You remind me of gold". The idea of dystopian vistas where only technology can provide illumination has a strong place in the musical legacy of post-industrial Britain. Cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield - responsible for OMD, New Order, and the Human League respectively - can even be considered a collective spiritual home of English synthpop.
Given North's tersely directional title, it should come as no surprise that geography serves as yet another of Darkstar's inspirations. However, the band's work is less a proud proclamation of regional fealty, more a series of meditations on the atomisation of contemporary urban life. Both Whalley and Young are working-class northerners who now reside in London, and echoing emotions doubtless common to most people who find themselves transplanted into unfamiliar environments, one of the primary concerns of their music is the question of what and where "home" really is. Is home defined by place or by people, or is it simply an ineffable feeling of belonging? Whatever the answer, when Buttery sings "I won't forget you," on the closing When It's Gone, it appears to be with a glimmer of valedictory defiance.
In a short album featuring a number of atmospheric and entirely beatless reveries, North's title track provides a strikingly purposeful coda, driven by an emphatic percussive loop, which by no coincidence happens to fall into the pattern of an industrial hammer. Evoking a Sergei Eisenstein-style visual montage of thrusting industry, its mechanistic clangs tap into the themes of imagined progress that consumed artists such as Kraftwerk in the 1970s.
However, its melody is so mournful that it is difficult to dismiss the idea that, rather than the march of change, this might be a funeral procession. When when, through sheets of static, Buttery pleads "you're wasting away", his words seem to offer much more than a simple personal observation. In the past, Britain's northern counties each had distinct and recognisable identities, histories and rivalries (take, for example, the 15th century's War of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster). Yet, since the mass closures of the UK's shipping, mining and steel industries in the 1980s, at least in terms of popular perception, this once-vital region has now been reduced to a homogenous mass, bound together and defined by the otherness of relative poverty and simply not being the South. In this sense North is the latest instalment in a lineage of music - from The Fall at their best to prime-period Pulp - from an artistic culture dedicated to capturing the tensions between a rich heritage and a butchered present.
As such, a sense of distance and disconnection courses through the album. Under One Roof begins with a 40-second squall, like someone tuning into a radio station while far away from the nearest transmitter and being buffeted by electrical storms. Then the beat begins, clip-clopping like computerised coconut shells and setting the scene for Buttery's fuzz-draped vocals: "Autumn was coming round/We decided to go". As a quote, it may be obscure, but North is filled with phrase-like snippets, often fogged into unintelligibility by bursts of distortion. Far from haphazardly lo-fi, this approach is studied and deliberate. Buttery's lines were delivered individually and recorded up to 100 times each, in order to ensure that the right emotional tenor was achieved. Then they were processed, reframed and recontextualised.
This aesthetic is at the heart of North's success. It is at once perfectly pitched and challenging. Like looking at a photograph so faded that much of the image is missing, listening to this album is an evocative experience that leaves one wondering about the missing parts, the wider narrative and whether a less disjointed story was there in the beginning. Still, Darkstar make sure you hear the words that matter. In one memorable line, Buttery sings: "When it's late there's only you." If anything encapsulates the album's character, it is this. It might not always be clear whether any optimism exists in these washed-out evocations of 21st-century love and loss, but the truth is that it's always there somewhere, drifting on ripples of crackling interference. The pleasure of this remarkable record is in teasing out these glimpses of a hopeful future from the uncomfortable realities of the past and present.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.