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Darkstar - North

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Artist: Darkstar

Album: North

Label: Hyperdub

Review date: Oct. 19, 2010

If North were being released on Domino, it would be hard to imagine anyone calling it dubstep. As it stands, Darkstar’s first full-length is coming out on Hyperdub, so the term is inevitable. Even before adding a singer, Darkstar — then James Young and Aiden Whalley — avoided convention, unless you consider romantic dread as much of a genre convention as wobbly bass. With vocalist James Buttery aboard, the trio emerges on its debut as a fully formed pop unit, like Junior Boys gone digital and cryptic.

Clearly, North is an album intended to be accessible, and it embodies its time and place more honestly than most records released this year -- which is a risky thing to say while also acknowledging that the title refers to a time as well as a place: the Northern England of Joy Division and The Human League. The latter even gets covered here, in a way: “Gold” is a 33-RPM take on “Mirror Man” b-side, “You Remind Me of Gold.” In interviews, the band has more to say about other canonical acts, like Kraftwerk or The Beatles, than Burial or Mount Kimbie. The distance between those expected micro-influences and the huge targets alluded to in the album’s title does a nice job of summing up the gap between the Darkstar of the past – namely, last year’s hit “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer” – and the Darkstar of the present.

“Aidy’s Girl,” the fourth song here, differs from the rest in that it uses vocals only as texture; it’s full of emotion, but lacks the theater or narrative of pop. Young and Whalley apparently made a whole album in a similar computer-love vein before scrapping it in favor of traditional (or in their case nontraditional) songwriting, and that “all in” gravitas is partly what makes North such a compelling experience. Darkstar must have known that failure was a serious possibility.

North’s songs rely equally on old and new pop instruments: synth, voice, digital distortion, piano and delay. It’s a great pop album, with the vocals following intelligible melodies, even if they’re treated to sound like they’re coming in over a bad cellphone connection. This is exceptional -- Darkstar was perfectly good at not being pop and definitely had safer options than making this particular record and, in the process, coming off as conservative or too available. But North isn’t a hedged bet, nor is it the confused product of a band trying to pass itself off as sui generis.

Yet, those are the two career paths that seemed most available to a band in Darkstar’s position: communicating within the horizon set by their peers or pushing all the right marketing buttons. Sure, the trio takes its name from a John Carpenter film, but the music doesn’t activate nostalgia or offer escapism for people who spend too much time on the Internet (contrast this with Salem’s Midwestern drug “realness”). North’s tone may be chilly and removed, but it doesn’t want for sentiment and it doesn’t take the shortcuts that are clearly at hand. And in the current landscape, that kind of self-reliance is half the battle in making durable music.

North is one of the better albums of an era of what a fellow Dusted writer has called “generic balkanization.” It’s a leap from making very good singles to making a great LP, the kind that actually makes the album format sound relevant again, rather than a cultural holdover.

By Brandon Bussolini

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