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Darkstar are apparently one of the darlings of the current UK electronic music scene. I say “apparently” because i only read about this stuff second-hand (at best) from my distant position all the way across the pond, and historically being a “darling of the UK electronica scene” translated into American as “making weird music with computers that will take a while to get used to”. What I mean is that usually when I come across an act with this level of hype in the UK, the music is very “out there”. Now, I love a listening challenge, and really enjoy hearing new and different things, so I make a point of trying to track down releases by artists that have similar hype. And in the past, releases by Burial, Boards of Canada, Autechre, FSOL, The Orb, etc. etc. have challenged me while being very enjoyable in the long run.

I mention all of this because I expected the same sort of experience with North. However, it’s not the same thing. At all. This is not as "out there" as most cutting edge UK electronica is. This is a solid pop record that uses some contemporary production techniques. Darkstar are not Elton John, but by the same token they are not as unexpected as, say, Incunnabula was all those years ago. Perhaps my meaning will become clearer after i have discussed the songs here.

A synth drone and a ponderous bass beat start the record off slowly in In The Wings. Eventually a piano joins, along with a stuttering voice singing lightly. The vocal bit sounds like it is skipping, but the rest of the music does not, which is a really subtle application of the cut-n-paste computer manipulation that has become normal in the UK these days, but was so radical and fresh when Autechre and Boards of Canada did it in the late 1990s.

On Gold, it is the percussion that sounds like it came from a cutting edge electronica song from ten years ago. The beats are staticy and skip along rapidly. Darkstar combine this almost drum-n-bass beat with a clean and melancholy vocal and some light piano. The piano carries into Deadness, except here the vocals are stuttering. And yet, at the same time, the vocalist suddenly reminds me of Bradford Cox. I guess he is singing in a light, high-pitched, disaffected manner over some aahing keyboards. However, what really makes this song is a great synth bass riff as well as the lovely guitar part on the bridge, someone playing a light accompaniment to the keys and bass. Great stuff, invoking the mid 00s, the late 90s, and the mid 80s all at the same time.

Up next is Aidy's Girl Is a Computer, which was a single released before this record came out. This is a happy little song with chiming, skipping beat and IDM vocals. The voice bit is a vocoder or some heavily effected computer voice sound, but it is buried in the mix behind the chiming beat and the happy keyboard melody. This is insanely catchy. A similar rhythm drives Under One Roof, the beat again skipping along underneath a nice keyboard drone and clear vocals. The beat is made up a slippery, sparse synth bass tone lost from some late 80s dance hit and a little bouncing high-pitched drum beat. I dare any listener to not bounce their head along to this.

These two songs are catchy and happy, which is not what i associate with dubstep, the genre that Darkstar nominally are associated with. For some reason i have yet to fully understand, British electronica in the late 00s insists on nervousness and darkness. The beats are tense, and there is a general sense of unease in the music. Just listen to a Burial record late at night, at home, with most of the lights off -- it is unsettling music, and the first half of North has not been unsettling.

Well, i think that they were just trying to lure the listener into a false sense of security. Listening to Deadness one can believe that the world is a decent place. But then you hit Two Chords, where the beat is a nervous thunking under keyboards droning in minor chords. The vocals are clipped and hurried, cut-n-pasted to the point where you are not totally sure you understand the words. On North, this tenseness continues with the addition of a harsh military beat, a repetitive tap-tap-tapping. As the song progresses, layers of dark keyboard drone rise up to swallow the voice, again manipulated to the border of comprehensibility.

Darkstar then take a break from the tense dubstep with Ostkruez a two minute interlude of piano and droning synths. Things cheer up a bit for Dear Heartbeat, which starts with some plinking keys then becomes a mid-tempoed pop tune with layers of piano, a happy little vocal bit, and some staticy beats. Finally, the record ends with When It's Gone, which features a keyboard melody that moves along at a very old-fashioned arpeggio. Something here makes me think of an organ piece by Bach, or something like that. However, the vocals are heavily computerized and this retro keyboard bit is paired with some nice echoing beats. As the song progresses, the organ becomes more piano like, until it ends with a nice piano riff and the voice, faintly stuttering, singing. Lovely.

So you see, there is nothing here that is too “out there”. This is UK electronica that even most Americans could appreciate. In fact, i am surprised that this record is not getting airplay in the US. Darkstar have taken the last twenty years worth of experimentation and distilled it down into concentrated catchiness. That is no mean feat, and even though i went into this record expecting some dark twisted opus similar to the last Burial LP, i have to admit that i am not disappointed. I was expecting something weird, but am perfectly happy with this album. It is a very catchy, listenable album. One of the best records i have heard this year, and i cannot recommend it enough.

Pop music, that is acclaimed in the UK electronic scene. Who ever saw that coming?

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