Be honest. Despite the widely positive to reaction to debut LP North, Darkstar never really made much sense on Hyperdub. Though their music shared a forward thinking mindset with the rest of the roster, it could also be light and friendly in a way none of their label mates ever seemed to care much for. A move to Warp for their second album News From Nowhere – which now features vocalist James Buttery joining James Young and Aiden Whalley as a wholly integral part of the band – suits Darkstar down to the ground. Though they’re not flawless, Warp strike me as one of the few labels who at least still actively encourage, and let’s not forget financially-back, artists with a penchant for attempting to eschew easy genre categorisation. And they seem to believe in what they’re working with here – the label disabled the functionality to skip tracks on pre-release streams of this, Darkstar’s first LP for the imprint, wanting you to enjoy this as a whole or not at all. That’s an attitude which is as rare as it is commendable.
So “future-garage” no longer applies to Darkstar, with “dubstep” or “EDM” being tags that are even less help. But whilst they might have left the garage behind, the trio have ripped out all of its electronics and are taking them along on their journey towards an ultramodern kind of singer songwriter’s music (album centrepiece ‘A Day’s Pay for a Day’s Work’, honest to gawd, sounds like a Four Tet remix of an Ed Harcourt song). In crafting it, Darkstar have obviously studied some of the great comings-together of electronic music and classic songwriting of recent years; only a band who grew up adoring Radiohead’s Kid A would ever make a record with everything in its right place quite so tidily as this one (pun intended, but apologised for). If you can get past the Animal Collective similarities, ‘Armonica’ is probably the finest track here, every sound on it fizzing and crackling as if it can’t wait to mutate into something else (elsewhere however, the warped, ever-building vocals and incessant rhythmical approach of ‘Amplified Ease’ is too similar to A.C. to actually take seriously). Perhaps a better comparison is Sufjan Stevens, who despite originating from a different point in his quest for a balance between the daringly electronic and the more recognisably tuneful, has ended up covering relatively similar ground with some of his recent work.
Of course, Darkstar’s songs aren’t quite at Sufjan levels of melodic richness – when it’s not rhythm being the star of their show, it’s almost always texture, and very rarely melody. Their soundscape sections like ‘-‘ (yep, that’s just a dash) or ‘Bed Music – North View’ (which also has a dash in it – pattern?) are currently their least engaging; whilst the likes of ‘You Don’t Need A Weatherman’, which bubbles over with tuneful and textural ideas, the curious, hazy waltz of ‘Young Hearts’ or in particular the closing half of final number ‘Hold Me Down’ (which sounds like Boards Of Canada having a really satisfying yawn) combine their rhythmic and textural ambitions to finest effect.
At 40 minutes, this is an easily digestible, at times highly enjoyable and always playfully inventive listen. But the fact that invention is so high on their list of priorities is also probably what stops the album from quite clicking into place – a lot of this sounds like it’s still going somewhere, rather than having arrived. So News From Nowhere isn’t their masterpiece, but if Darkstar are ever going to deliver such an album, chances are they’ll be drawing a lot from what they discovered whilst making this one.