Not many who call London home can claim a career as unexpected as Darkstar’s. “Aidy’s Girl Is a Computer,” first released in 2009 and reappearing on their excellent 2010 Hyperdub debut, North, was a laptop 2-step anthem that belonged to a different era of UK bass impulses than what showed up on the rest of the group’s first LP. After recruiting vocalist James Buttery, the now-trio put together a record of robotically skewed, overcast Londoner-influenced synthpop that sounded as much like a tribute to its cloudy English namesake as it did to Caves of Steel. North arrived a little over a month before James Blake covered Feist, by the way. But it’s an album that barely made a sound outside of Hyperdub’s relatively relegated following.
Two years later Darkstar released the fittingly titled, “Timeaway,” via English electronic titan, Warp. The track was a complete tonal 180 from the glitched downcast aesthetics of North. The group wasn’t subtle about the change in pace either. “Timeaway”‘s artwork featured a few exaggerated, primary-colored flower petals and their newest promo photo saw the trio standing in front of a wall of similarly colored vegetation. News From Nowhere follows suit, treading a sound recognizable in approach as the pop-indebted 2-step of their debut, but exploring a melodic, left-field flower child sense of psychedelia and experimentalism that’s as surprising as it can be exciting.
“Timeaway” remains the sole standout amongst News From Nowhere‘s ten tracks. The cut centers around a clicking, vibrant pastel arpeggio and some busy, hollowed-straw drum programming. The beautiful falsetto chorus is the album’s high point, backed by a wash of dark watercolor synths and synthetic strings. It’s a pop song in the midst of an album more centered on rhythm and ambiance. Vocalist James Buttery is capable, but his presence is less remarkable than it was on North without the production’s frigid contrasts and Aiden Whalley and James Young’s constant otherworldly vocal manipulations. Buttery works best in the upper register like on beatless opener, “Light Body Clock Starter,” which would sound right at home on Caribou’s own take on flowery 60s textures, Andorra. The track hums with stretched dawn-colored streaks, Buttery’s bodiless vocals reaching upward, caught in an infinite echo as they weave laterally through the landscape.
“Armonica” might be the album’s only true dud. It finds Buttery seemingly outside his comfort zone, riding the track’s springy textures and end-over-end rhythm instead of hovering above it where he’s at his best. The Animal Collective-esque “Amplified Ease” and “You Don’t Need A Weatherman” offer up similar skewed tribal-y experiments that see Whalley and Young folding Buttery’s vocals into their leap frog surroundings as often as the vocalist navigates them on his own. “A Day’s Pay For A Day’s Work,” on the other hand–the closest thing to a reprise of North that News From Nowhere has to offer–is a sparse, mechanical piano ballad with Buttery at his best, propping the song up with some beautifully warped, wordless backing vocals and a significant upward chorus. And “Bad Music – North View” finds the perfect middle ground between glimmering motionless and stomping tom-driven momentum.
News From Nowhere is a wildly divergent turn for Darkstar. It’s as carefully and intricately produced as anything the group has managed to date, but with a blinding vibrancy added to its tonal pallet and outlook. The album does take a few minor missteps that make its ultimate intentions unclear and its back half could use a track as memorable and immediate as “Timeaway” to round things out, but the distance the duo-turned-trio has covered since their auspicious beginnings without sacrificing chops for digestibility and presenting multiple strains of a fully-formed sound is pretty astounding.