When we think back to the headrush of vivid, maximalist dance music that surged out of the UK in the late 00s, the broadsheet breakthrough of Rustie and Hudson Mohawke will likely spring to mind first. Nottingham-born producer Lone, aka Matt Cutler, might fall a few names further down the list, but despite not necessarily being at the centre of the Warp Records revolution like his Glaswegian peers, musically he was right there with them, deftly lacing Detroit house, neo-rave, hip-hop and a neon laundry list of other styles into bewilderingly creative tracks that were as suited to heaving dancefloors as they were to darkened rooms and pricey headphones.
Cutler’s journey through the electronic kaleidoscope culminated with 2012’s superb Galaxy Garden, a breathlessly inventive masterpiece that deserves to sit confidently alongside Rustie’s Glass Swords, released just a few months before, as one of the definitive statements of modern British dance music. And like Glass Swords, it was an album so gloriously stretched in every direction that it prompted the listener to wonder what would come next – could there possibly be another level up from its manic dynamism?
The answer has arrived with Reality Testing, Lone’s fifth full-length and his second on relaunched electro label R&S Records. To be fair, there was a clue laid last year in the form of comeback single “Airglow Fires”, now included on Reality Testing along with its B-side “Begin to Begin”. The hold-over tracks showcased a more considered sound that suppressed the restless rave energy in favour of an earthier meeting point between Detroit techno and East Coast hip-hop, the latter of which takes pride of place on the woozy outro of “Airglow Fires”.
Perhaps Cutler will return in the future to find out if there’s anything else left to throw after the kitchen sink; for now, Lone’s path forward isn’t a leap but a humanisation. Reality Testing is a markedly more personal record than its predecessor, and indisputably more cohesive. Unlike Galaxy Garden, there’s no sprawl here, and few of the screeching left turns that characterise his last album and the likes of the Echolocations EP. “I see it as a diary, really, a real document of the last year of making it,” Cutler said in press materials for the new album. In musical terms, that sentiment translates to a subtler application of the synth washes and digital arpeggios for which he’s known. The dialled-up hip-hop influences – “Meeker Warm Energy” could be a lost A Tribe Called Quest instrumental, and “2 is 8” hums with a perky energy born of Brooklyn summer block parties – lend the beats a weightier quality that doesn’t shy away from the mundane heartbeat of everyday life.
That’s not to suggest the album is the kind of slog that often comes when artists decide they’re too mature for fun. A producer of Cutler’s calibre can’t help but endlessly engage with a steady stream of evocative sounds, whether it’s the twinkling, Nosaj Thing-referencing tones of “Jaded”, the punchy house piano line of “Aurora Northern Quarter” or atmospheric opener “First Born Seconds”, which whirs to life with warm waves like some space-age Playstation booting up, playfully suggesting a fully-loaded sensory assault that never comes.
Amongst the album’s subtler shades, some might miss Lone’s trademark fireworks, but while Reality Testing might not bear the genre-defining feel of its predecessor, its personality and refreshing humanity provide ample compensation. Almost every detail speaks to a conscious reconnection with reality, from its apt title to the cover art, which, in contrast to Galaxy Garden’s fluorescent splurge, presents a timid self-portrait, Cutler half-obscured in front of a brutalist concrete building, with just a splash of familiar psychedelic colour. Everyday sounds – wind chimes burbling in the breeze, a fizzy drink being poured, kids screeching on the playground – drift into the recordings, as if Cutler left the studio window open to the world outside. But perhaps the most succinct summation of Lone’s triumphant touchdown on planet earth after a long period of star gazing is the vocal sample on second track “Restless City”: “When I say real I mean reality real. Meaning real real life.” Amen to that.