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Album reviews – Darkroom: ‘Daylight’ (“subtly distressed electronica”)

14 Aug

Darkroom: 'Daylight'

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’

To work out where Darkroom are coming from, you could do worse than take a look at ‘Daylight’s arresting cover. It’s a study of sturdy, corroded old industrial tanks, encircled by metal stairways and surrounded by a devil’s playground of battered, abandoned plastic drums. The drums are marked with hazard labels but yawn open, suggesting that their toxic contents have long since leached out into the environment.

Behind the towering tanks is a radiant blue sky and a slanting blanket of pure white fluffy cloud, against which they rear up like Reims Cathedral. It’s beautiful, in a warped way – the wreckage and castoffs of a once-bright new industry that, nonetheless, continue to assert themselves. Yet in this toxic paradise there’s not a person in sight.

No, this isn’t suggesting that Darkroom are the sort of electronica trio who revel in futurism, and who excise humanity from their orderly sequenced and oscillating musical vision of the world. The opposite is true. Darkroom’s music (in which Os’ sequences and textures are balanced by Michael Bearpark’s mutated post-industrial guitars and Tim Bowness’ naked swoony vocal wail) has humanity in spades. The live instrumentation and vocalising unites with the programmed sound and beats in a way that’s rare in over-purified electronic music, but in the music that emerges – one in which the technology provides uncertainty rather than comfortable form, and in which the threat of chaos and upset looms constantly in the background – the main note sounded is one of loss. One of the main qualities of daylight, after all, is its impermanence.

Via a previous EP, we’ve already heard the discontented seethe of Carpetworld: roof-skittering drum’n’bass with guttering snarls of wounded guitar and Tim’s voice reined in to a hooded whisper of acidic verbiage – the only lyrics on the record, and they’re about bad sex, looting and dodgy discos. We’ve also heard the beautiful flush of ‘Daylight’s title track: a tumbling chant (mournful but blissful) against a slow wallow of bass, the singing notes of Mike’s Frippertronical guitar, and Os’ dawn chorus of flickering sound. Darkroom can do in-yer-face, and they can do strokin’-yer-cheek. They do each of these in roughly equal amounts. Often they do both together, in an elusive blur of ambiguous emotion – the sort that makes you keep one eye on them and the other, anxiously, on the door; but which keeps you held in place, unable to resist the desire to see for yourself what comes next.

Ambiguity is in fact the keyword for this music. Brash, defined techno structures are missing, their place taken by sketchy outlines which the trio fill up with evolving, chaotic detail. The beats are light-footed: slow breaks languidly pacing the background, or pattering techno pulses like rats’ paws. The electronics hum like supercharged fridges close to bursting flamewards, or keen out lovely auroral shivers in the sky and in the shadowed spaces. Tim’s full-voiced mixture of blurred word-shapes and sub-verbal whoops are sometimes Buckley-ish in their tortured flamboyance, sometimes more like Liz Fraser’s outraged brother. Melodies drift, loop and contort: massy and queasily mutable, cloudscapes tortured out of their natural forms by the force of some cruel idiot god.

Sometimes Darkroom’s music sounds like Underworld (though tumbled from their throne and reeling with the impact of a massive nervous breakdown) or like Fripp and Eno sailing their boat into much more malevolent waters. Sprawl growls its overcast way past complex shifting slapping beats, squelched bass, crushed radio-talk and vocal frailties; a baleful camera scanning a wasteland. The opener, Crashed, is strung out, lovely but disfocussed, with a streak of elegant suffering running through it. The guitars rattle like motoring moon-buggies, the voice oppresses like a summer shower, and somewhere in the background, behind the throaty tick of percussion, a lone voice of optimism: a marimba chinking out its own little Steve Reich wavelet.

There are episodes of naked grace on board, beside the pollution, but ‘Daylight’ is still one of the most subtly distressed records to wriggle out of late ‘90s electronica. This is most obvious in the wrenching, frozen agony of Vladimir; but Died Inside seems to sob in anticipation for a collapse waiting to happen but never quite arriving. Looped calls, lilting gasps are answered across a chill and echoing gulf by the icy fuzz of a guarded guitar, prowling and snarling in its own isolation. Once, Tim’s voice reaches a rare degree of intelligibility – a panicked, unanswered plea of “d’you feel the same?”

The wonder that comes close in hand with this fear is laid out explicitly in No History. A soft hip-hop beat holds down the sky-stretchingly rapt vocal and the beautiful subterranean guitar moans: a soundtrack to the forever-flavoured moment when you lie stricken at the bottom of that fatal crevasse, watching the last and most brilliant stars of your lifetime pierce the beckoning void overhead. Like a fleeting memory of softer times, a snippet of (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay slips in. The amplifier buzz at the end is a benediction.

If there’s a time when there’s resolution, it’s when those two questioning background voices reach out across the comforting pulse of Estragon – Michael’s guitar like a high, bowed bell, Tim toned down to a florid whisper. Still, as it sails on towards its hushed conclusion, the key feeling of ‘Daylight’ remains one of loss. A lament for something unknown, but something voiceable. Something long gone past but reaching out for you again, as the day goes down and fades off into the poisonous beauty of a industrial sunset haunted by old unquiet ghosts.

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8002 CD (5 023693 800226)
CD-only album
Released: 7th August 1998

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Darkroom online:
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EP reviews – Darkroom: ‘Carpetworld’ (“swathed in contradiction… one long, haunting slab of sonic terrorism”)

15 Jul

Darkroom: 'Carpetworld' EP

Darkroom: ‘Carpetworld’ EP

Darkroom come swathed in contradiction: daytime shoppers on the sleeve, savage nightlife in the music. And no credits, though apparently it’s another one of those confounded No-Man offshoots ‑ don’t these bloody people ever sleep or anything? Evidently not, if the tracks on this single serve as an example of the sounds pulsating through their brains.

Carpetworld itself breaks all the rules ‑ the rules that say you can’t put vocals and lyrics recalling Soft Cell‑era Marc Almond over churning, vicious Frippish guitar ambience and hard‑as‑nails mechanoid beats falling somewhere between jungle and hardcore techno. A knife in the side of the rave generation’s blissout, it’s elegant in its brutality (“taking a twirl with your best friend’s girl, while the rest of the gang torch Carpetworld”), hovering in tatty clubs and observing the rituals of nihilism unfold as the backwash of bad E and the not-so-gentle ’90s poison the clubbers’ dreams.

Dance darkhorse it might be (it doesn’t run with any obvious scene, and fuck knows which playlist it’ll fit on in the increasingly segregated world of dance radio) but this is still cutting‑edge contemporary, with absolutely no fluffiness and Tim Bowness spitting out lyrics the likes of which we’ve never heard fall from his previously poetic mouth ‑ “Have useless sex with your ugly ex… / You velvet‑sneakered chancer, you broken-fist romancer…” as the beats flutter like a death’s head moth trapped in the throat. I’ll stay well out of the disturbing urban nightmare Darkroom are living in, but I’ll happily live it vicariously through their warped imaginings. Dante’s disco inferno.

After that, the Carpetwarehouse reworking does lacks a certain spontaneity. The original sounds like it’s literally fallen together in a paranoid improv session after a thoroughly unpleasant experience: This – apart from simply not being different enough – simply sounds like Darkroom have tried too hard at the atmospherics. OK, the beats are even more frenetic and Bowness achieves something he’s previously never managed in previous recordings: i.e., sounding fucking terrifying as his distorted voice rasps out the repeated mantra “I’m coming after you!” If you ever thought, from listening to No-Man’s work, that you could have that Bowness chap in a fight ‑ think again… Nonetheless, one does yearn for a battering, bloody remix from the diseased mind of Jim ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell, or Aphex Twin.

But, hell, Darkroom’s maverick genius still encompasses enough space for much more roaming, ambient trips. Daylight, in particular. Tim Bowness (like Martyn Bates) has always had one of those voices that are perfect to use as an instrument integral to a piece such as this, weaving magical wordless nothings in and around underwater tones and splashes of electronica. Anchoring this thoughtful pause from drifting off into inconsequentiality, a beautifully melodic bass riff and eerily clattering percussion ‑ like the echoing sound of camera shutters ‑ keep proceedings somewhere near planet Earth.

Ardri, though (nonsensical title ‑ always a bad sign), reeks too much of late ’70s/early ’80s ambient ‑ the kind of stuff the BBC would choose to soundtrack beautiful nature footage. Look, it’s a personal thing ‑ until someone out there finds even a slightly new direction with ambient (and I would certainly not rule Darkroom out of this), then the only sounds that interest me are the ones that either completely chill me out, or those that make the hairs on the back of my neck rise. This final track (like too much else in the field) gets my mind wandering after the first minute and thinking “So? What’s next?”

So, a downbeat end to a marvellous debut from Darkroom. Buy it for the title track and (whatever my gripes) for the remix, and just treat them as one long, haunting slab of sonic terrorism. Brilliant.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Darkroom: ‘Carpetworld’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8001CD (5023693800158)
CD-only EP
Released: 6th July 1998

Buy it from:
(2018 update) This is now one of the rarest Darkroom releases – best obtained second-hand or from iTunes.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud BandcampLastFM

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