It’s hard to keep up with releases from 100% Silk and its parent label, Not Not Fun. Both labels put out material at such a rate that it might seem like a losing battle trying to find any semblance of consistency between records. But while the labels’ rosters are as diverse as they come, since 100% Silk’s inception last year, both have found a foothold with artists approaching dance music from less traditional angles. Recent releases like Sand Circle’s Motor City, Ital’s Hive Mind, or Design’s Hangin’ all sound like something cooked up by outsider acolytes made all the more striking by their perspective on traditional modes of house and techno. At a glance, Mike Norris, who goes by the name of Fort Romaeu, might fit the same mold, but you wouldn’t know it listening to Kingdoms.
Norris is most recognizable for his role in English pop outfit, La Roux, as live keyboardist and programmer. He has a decade of production and DJ experience under his belt as well, but Kingdoms is his first released solo work. The album is a short ride, clocking in just over thirty-five minutes, but its so full of vivid, perspiring textures and luscious, curved hooks that it remains one of the more impressionable dance LPs this year. It helps Norris is a songwriter as much as he is a producer. Most of Kingdoms‘ tracks clock in between three and five minutes, straddling house with touches of electro, techno, and a little Italo disco resulting in a number of soppy-lipped, late-night club anthems packed with smeared vocal samples and chittering percussion intricacies. My prejudice going into Kingdoms was that Norris’ handle on his influences would paint itself in broad strokes, but I was happily mistaken.
Opener, “Jack Rollin'” gets a ton of mileage out of its laser-canon vocal sample and rubbery bass line, delivering a stare-worthy take on Chicago house, its edges smoothed over by the rivers of lush synths drowning the vocal near the track’s middle. The title track is even better, gathering its gaping supernova synths and hissing, far-off vocal into a tidal wave of crystalline fire while crinkling techno textures massage the track’s outer regions. “Say Something” is awash in hints of Mediterranean dance music – muted guitar plucks and glass-walled synth stabs furled around tight-lipped vocals. “Some Of Us Want For Nothing” is beautifully weird and “Nights Bridge” is a bath in nebula-colored dreamscapes. “I Need U” might be the standout, moving from what sounds like a ballroom piano filtered through liquidated shards of glass and some tickling snare clicks into a love scene interlude before finally blooming into upward arpeggiated escapism.
Kingdoms is lose-yourself expansive yet in-your-face aggressive. It’s intricate and layered. It’s diverse and tonally pervasive. But it manages to pour a surprising and sincere, heart-to-heart sense of emotion onto all these things. Its an album I’ve played countless times without as much as breaking a sweat (I’d call its brevity a virtue, though it wouldn’t have been faulted for letting its beats ride out a little longer). Its one of the breezier records I’ve reviewed this year – perhaps potentially warranting the label “disposable,” if viewed at a glance (a dynamic in music we’re discussing and trying to be aware of more and more) – yet its glistening emotional core has made it stick where other records have fallen by the wayside.