U.K. electronic duo Darkstar’s debut LP, North, displays an astonishing level of growth and maturity when compared to their earlier hyperkinetic dubstep material. Grime and dubstep are touchstones, especially on the title track, but songs like “Under One Roof” and “Deadness” hearken back to David Bowie and Brian Eno’s collaborations from the late ’70s. Carefully subdued drum sounds and synths slowly push the songs forward, overwhelming the listener at a glacier’s pace rather than with a tidal wave. When electronic music switches off the drum machines and slows down the incessant beeps and swirls, there’s a tendency for it to be written off as “intelligent dance music,” a term that has been derided by many electronic music pioneers, including Aphex Twin, but slow doesn’t mean dull, and each of James Young and Aiden Whalley’s tracks has its own style and pace, which prevents monotony from sinking in.
The glitchy “Aidy’s Girl Is a Computer” was released as a single two years ago to critical acclaim and is wisely included on North, but “When It’s Gone” is the strongest track on the album, and would make an excellent follow-up single. The song’s double-tracked vocals make a somber pledge to distant love, treated enough to have a slightly alien feel, but a welcomed bit of human touch comes courtesy of a hypnotic keyboard groove. This balance between the electronic and the organic is essential to North’s success, as electronica’s reliance on computer-created sounds is typically cited as the reason it can feel cold and lifeless.
While the first of these musical qualities is readily apparent on North, the album is also full of emotion—sometimes brooding, sometimes thoughtful and reflective. Call it baroque electronica. If Sufjan Stevens and Fleet Foxes are able to give credibility and respect to pop music today the way the Beatles, the Kinks, and others did before them, then Darkstar has the potential to join the ranks of other seminal artists who have given electronic music a deeper dimension.