In response to Deadmau5’s Album Title Goes Here earlier this year, FACT Magazine‘s John Calvert rightly mourned, “50 million American teenagers are about to form their conception of dance music.” Thank God, then, for albums like Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems, which takes some of the most distinguishable aspects of texturology, dub, bleep, ambient, and glitch and mixes them all together in a multi-aesthetic primordial soup that highlights the individual strengths of each ingredient—a gallery for exhibiting the strange dimensions exclusive to techno.
Stott is a soundsmith as digital mechanic, a producer with a rarified understanding of how to arrange silence with sound in shapes that enable them to transcend their monochromatic makeup. As with his EPs Passed Me By and We Stay Together, Luxury Problems finds Stott continuing to dredge new colors from the sound of sub-bass. It’s quite remarkable, like uncovering a three-dimensional direction in a fundamentally two-dimensional reality. The juxtaposition and simplicity in Stott’s composing style allows him the freedom to toy with complexities while simultaneously expressing purity in tone and mood. He’s an artist currently at one with a moment in music that pairs the right sound to the right place, at exactly the time it needs to be heard.
Structurally speaking, the tracks on Luxury Problems exhibit an impressive variety. From more conventional techno arrangements to the submerged atmospheres of deep-house and dub, the palette is surprisingly dense. There are towering clusters of concretion and bottomless caverns of lonesome silence, air-locked vacuums of sound—the audible image of emptiness as one pure unadulterated note.
The album creeps through the door with “Numb,” which opens with an aural pool of pseudo-organic chirps followed by not so much a percussive thud as a juggernaut block of coagulated noise, the sound of a colossal boulder chugging about inside your mind. “Expecting” is a narcotic browbeater, all pulses and tics, while the title track is a colder, more cavernous take on Unique 3’s sub-bass-anchored bangers, an example of what “Weight for the Bass” would sound like were it drained of all its blood.
Stott’s decision to use real—which is to say, not strictly sampled—vocals on the overwhelming majority of Luxury Problems is a brave one. Alison Skidmore’s lofty voice grounds the music in a way that grants the album a warmth that would otherwise be absent, but it robs it of the capacity to grant total immersion—that ineffable swaddling associated with the very best ambient techno music. The jarring contrast between the opaqueness of the instrumental backing and the brightness of Skidmore’s vocals is akin to the sensation of dosing off on a plane and being awoken every few seconds by turbulence. That numbing, emptying phenomenon so endemic to techno’s mechanical repetition is sadly always just out of reach.
Stott’s use of the human voice recalls Aphex Twin’s vocal organization technique on his remix of Curve’s “Falling Free,” while the concentration on sub-bass and texture throughout the album is reminiscent of Nightmare on Wax’s “Aftermath,” one of the landmark singles of the Manchester bleep-and-bass hotbed of the early ‘90s. A thorough understanding of these two works grants a near full understanding of Luxury Problems‘s strengths and weaknesses. Noise can be music, sure, but Stott argues that silence can be too. Luxury Problems‘s most provocative quality is derived from its tendency to fracture into its own most basic element: sound. The album is at its best when its space is utilized not to build additional patterns, but to simply frame the raw nature and intrinsic beauty of sound.