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Ear Drums and Black Holes

[Planet Mu; 2010]

By ; April 14, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Expectation can be a merciless motherfucker when it gets hold of you. It seemed like all the pieces were sitting right there for Starkey: starting with a hugely impressive debut in Ephemeral Exhibits and culminating in a string of recent singles that were all fantastic. Last year’s “OK Luv” whet my appetite first, wonderful in both instrumental and vocal versions, but it’s his two releases this year that made me breathless. First, there was “Rain City” (on the fantastic Rwina label) which stands as one of his finest achievements and then the utterly gorgeous “Stars” saw him floating in new, blissfully beautiful waters. So my anticipation was sitting comfortably at fever pitch, expecting this perfectly formed cosmic bass epic to come and steal my heart away.

Yet on my first listen to Ear Drums and Black Holes, I felt more than a little confused. It was like looking at someone’s holiday photos from their trip to some gorgeous interstellar destination, except some of the shots were mixed in from entirely different albums, showing him posing in some gritty urban cityscape or staring soulfully into the middle distance. And when closing track “Fidelio” drifted into silence, I had to wonder exactly what it was I’d just sat through.

Don’t get me wrong: there is a lot of fantastic music on this album. “Stars” is still as wonderful as the first time I heard it. It’s a gorgeous, beautiful haze, and thankfully it’s not the only track in that vein. “New Cities,” with Kiki Hitomi on vocals, is another strung-out cosmic ballad, drifting in star-spangled bliss with an achingly sweet chorus melody where every note seems to evaporate as soon as it’s played. In all honesty, I would have been pretty happy with an entire forty-minute album in this vein, since these two tracks work so well, but Starkey has a whole lot more tricks up his sleeve, and many are just as dazzling.

“Neck Snap” takes the graffiti-splatter of his earlier work and reworks it into a blissful ambient wash, alien melodies drifting to the surface and floating into the void. That same kosmiche hum is carried over into “Fourth Dimension,” which jacks it up on techno beats before disassembling it into one of his day-glo synthfucker stickups and then rebuilding that into some slo-mo cosmic rave. It’s an amazing track which really shows what Starkey is capable of at the peak of his powers. “Capsule” may not make quite enough of its seven minute running time, but when it segues from juddering bass into Tangerine Dream styled synth explorations and back, it’s pretty impressive. And “Pleasure Points” splices the moments of cosmic beauty that he keeps toying with over the album’s length into Ephemeral Exhibits-styled synth manipulations to fantastic effect. Closing track “Fidelio” is another standout, opening with lovely trails of starlit melody that get interrupted by these huge warped bass notes, a swooning melody rising from up the menacing hum. It coalesces into this massive gaseous symphony that suddenly evaporates, leaving only echoes behind. It’s a great way to end the album.

Unfortunately, there’s also the not-so-good. Most obviously, the tracks with MCs don’t seem to work in the album context. Maybe isolated on their own as a separate EP it might have felt different, but having the sullen thump of “Murderous Words” sitting in between “OK Luv” and “11th Hour” feels jarring. The standout MC track “Numb” is a bit of an exception, although it still doesn’t quite work as the lead-in to a gossamer dream like “Stars.” And the aforementioned run of “Neck Snap” into “Fourth Dimension” feels derailed by prospective banger “Club Games.” A lot of this can be chalked up to bizarre sequencing choices, but “Spacecraft,” is more inexplicable, starting off perfectly well with a six-synth pileup, before being interrupted by Starkey’s auto-tuned vocal, singing about going on an interstellar journey. It all feels a bit ‘show not tell,’ especially since the best tracks on the album give that feel effortlessly, without the need for him stomp in and ruin it. It’s a brief aberration, and could probably be overlooked if not for “Alienstyles” doing the same thing a few tracks later, but more so. It’s difficult to get past him singing as some R&B crooner romancing his girl with the promise of a jaunt around the galaxy by telling her that “the window for liftoff is closing.”

In short, it feels like there’s a great album fighting to get out from amongst a few unfortunate choices. It’s clear from skipping through the album that Starkey’s great at a whole bunch of different styles. However, they don’t necessarily all sound great together. Given the source material, it’s tempting to play God with an album like this – with a little pruning and shuffling the track order and taking the opportunity to slip something as stellar as “Rain City” back into the mix, you wind up with something truly special. That’s if you’re willing to play chicken with artistic integrity. It’s always a contentious issue to many (including the artists themselves, who don’t always appreciate your opinion on how to make their album better) but I’ve been doing it for years, even back when you had to do it with two tape decks and it was actual work. But whether you roll your own astral journey with the Starkbot, or let him take you on a wild ride through his world, there’s more than enough incredible music here to make it entirely worthwhile.


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