From the start, North is noticeably different compared to Darkstar’s earlier releases. Hyperdub, their record label, is known for dubstep artists like Kode9 and Burial. Although their early releases can be found under the “dubstep” category, their debut album is far from hard-hitting beats and wobbly bass lines.
Instead, the album carries a dark, synth-pop sound for its runtime of around 40 minutes. Pitch-shifting choirs accompany octave climbing synth lines. Bursts of percussion stand out among North’s melancholy atmosphere, which is mostly beat free. Yet, amidst all of the mechanic, melancholic denseness, Darkstar manages to add warmth to their debut with vocals.
Prior to North, Darkstar was comprised of James Young and Aiden Whalley. For their debut, the duo decided to bring in a third party: vocalist James Buttery. With Buttery, Darkstar are able to present their mechanic, melancholy synth-pop with just a touch of living, breathing humanity. Buttery’s vocals are edited at times, made to skip and stretch, which blurs the line between man and machine.
The songs on the album carry this combination of man vs. machine well. “Gold” is actually a cover of the Human League’s “You Remind Me of Gold.” Even though it’s been years since “You Remind Me of Gold” was released, Darkstar’s cover still finds a way to sound dated. “Aidy’s Girl Is a Computer,” which was released as a single before the album, is a steady procession of percussion, warped vocals, synth chords and a shaking synth buzz.
On “Two Chords” synth taps and vocals slowly build up among the airy atmosphere of the track. Picture an elevator ascending through the clouds and into the heavens. And just when you think a drop is about to come, it doesn’t. It never does. It continues to build until the choir of angels ceases to sing, at which point the song ends after a few synth chords.
While North is a far cry from Darkstar’s previous releases, it’s a nice addition to the world of electronica. This album sets the duo apart from their label mates, but retains the dark atmosphere that Hyperdub artists are known for. Although no one expected Darkstar to follow the synth-pop route, it was a path worth taking.
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