The people that affect our lives build homes in our memories. For his first LP in six years, techno producer and longtime Modern Love constituent, Andy Stott, reconnected with his teenage piano teacher, Alison Skidmore, an old family friend whom he hadn’t seen in nearly two decades. Skidmore is a trained opera singer and her contributions to Stott’s new record, Luxury Problems, fall purely into the vocal department. Her presence largely defines the album (despite only appearing on five of its eight tracks), but the connection between the Mancunian producer and his old teacher is more ethereal and dissociative than directly collaborative and feels as if Stott is reaching back and building his own musical additions to those intimate memories of his teacher and his beginnings as a student of music.
It’s not as if Luxury Problems is about anything in particular. Judging by his recent beautifully rendered, greyscale album sleeves and fleetingly evocative album titles, Stott is a producer more interested in the impressionism of exacting dimensions, sleek contours, deep contrasts, and a pin-tip balancing of bodily perfection. But the distance in memory between its subjects still seems to play an overt role in Luxury Problems. This is underscored by the fact that the vocals here are actually old a cappella recordings made by Skidmore, which Stott used as diced centerpieces and foundations to build these tracks around. Stott doesn’t have any William Basinki or Caretaker-esque aspirations regarding memory and its deterioration or anything like that. Instead, Luxury Problems communicates the sensation of recall and its narrative distortion or coloring of events.
Luxury Problems arrives after a groundswell of attention and acclaim leveled at Stott following the release of two, now arguably watershed, EPs last year by the names of Passed Me By and We Stay Together. The releases saw Stott’s incremental shift away from his more refined prototypically Modern Love-ian dancefloor material like 2009’s excellent “Night Jewel” and 2010’s “Tell Me Anything” toward a slowed, amphetamine-choked sub-100 BPM take on Basic Channel-style dub techno and UK house infused with ovular granite-hewn, Philip Jeck-esque loops and a shine toward FM spectrum-aping UK garage crushed beneath a few thousand atmospheres of pressure. Passed Me By saw some of the leftover airiness of those earlier tracks, but We Stay Together burrowed all the way beneath the Earth’s mantle in a kind of claustrophobic subterranean zombie-waltz, Stott’s plodding, viscera-fused kick heaving and pounding with a revelatory, animal force.
Luxury Problems makes it clear Stott perfected what he set out to do with Passed Me By. The 2011 EPs act as a sort of explorative testing ground, while Luxury Problems sets out to build something more sophisticated, emotionally complex, and definitive by expanding on many of the same tools and techniques. Stott does cover some new ground structurally, but tonally the record is a far cry from anything the producer has done before or, really, anything that might qualify as techno has tried before. With the addition of Skidmore’s vocals–cutup, looped, and overlapping, but always the focal point–atmospherically, Stott creates something more akin to the introverted feminine meditations of Julia Holter or the cumulative loop pastels of Julianna Barwick. Except, you know, it sounds like Andy Stott. The contrast between Skidmore’s genteel, paper-thin whispers and Stott’s coagulated low end is striking; brutality trapped in a sudden stillness of beauty or, vice versa, perfectly maintained crystalline sculptures caged in a malevolent, fossilized sandstorm. But Skidmore’s vocals don’t feel anonymous. There’s a ton of personality on both ends of the record’s tonal spectrum–Stott’s hints at unhinged savagery lulled by a calming, matriarchal presence.
Stott still varies the use of Skidmore’s vocals across the five tracks she does appear on. Both “Numb” and “Leaving” are more ambient affairs. The former builds into a glugging, broken-machine chug, caffeinated industrial drones stewing beneath the cycles of Skidmore’s hushed, serpentine cries draped around the track like an attic full of spacious cobwebs. “Leaving” is almost all vocals, the wall of half-lidded, pastoral coos swirling around a cavernous void while a few solitary, quaking synth plucks push up from below, a chittering metronomic click wavering in and out of earshot. “Lost and Found” layers a sonorous, operatic vocal over a giant, stuttering kick and a warped bedrock of writhing, growling textures, delicious clacking snares plopping in a cyclonic formation all across the track with tiny melodic polyrhythms creeping in here and there. The mammoth “Hatch the Plan” strings Skidmore’s coos in long arcing streams over a vast, tenuous negative space, a determined kick plugging away, while Stott pours in a flood of screeching, metallic subway-tunnel echoes and failed radio transmission hisses. And the title track is a knock-kneed click-clack full of back roads and bushwhack detours, a random jack-in-the-box disco-ish sample butting its head in occasionally and the syncopated “ooh”ing vocals bouncing playfully off a revving, copper steam-engine bass line.
The album contains a few cuts sans Skidmore where Stott extends similar tonal qualities to more confined outlines. “Sleepless” recaptures the pure thrill of We Stay Together‘s brutal simplicity, its buoyant kick announced after a looped, punchline vocal sample. The track is awash with down-pitched, zigzagging vocals and pipe-rattle percussion building to a chaotic pitch over its lizard-brained rhythm and gear-cracking synths. “Expecting” dives into some hellish Demdike Stare-esque ambiance, a reflective obsidian surface covered in gritty grey debris. The kick falls quivering into place like a sweat-drenched hunk of meat, squashing a current of clanging, oil-drum percussion and slithering rivulets of whirling white noise. “Up The Box” is an oddity, touching on barren, fractured drum’n’bass squeezed by a layer of soot and ash.
Luxury Problems bleeds ornate production detail and squeal-worthy song dynamics–some of which make last year’s EPs look quaint in comparison–but its album-length arc makes as much of an impression as its tracks’ individual facets. The record has an engrossing, alternately glassy and foggy tactility, as if you’re groping blindly through a dark, thick dream logic-riddled haze only to find something smooth and cool and comforting at its center to wrap your sweaty limbs around. It’s a thoughtful and meditative affair with a meaningful and felt collaboration at its core. It wouldn’t do to slot Andy Stott and Luxury Problems into the conversation surrounding producers who center their music around vocal samples. This goes beyond that, both in its depth of emotion and form, crafted from the complacent feelings of distant relationships and the depths of lingering memories.