Darkstar – Foam Island (Warp Records)

Posted by vibrations on 01-11-15

‘Loyalty and kindness. Honesty. Just basic things’, says an apprehensive Huddersfield resident, opening Darkstar’s third studio album. As the aptly titled track ‘Basic Things’ progresses, she is joined by a chorus of others describing personal attachment to their small northern hometown. It’s these sound clips – conversations the duo recorded after befriending citizens of the town - that make this record such a candid glance into the town’s community.

During the writing of FoamIsland, members James Young and Aiden Whalley made fifteen trips to Huddersfield, where they interviewed its residents, making friends with them, drinking with them, even going round to their family homes for dinner. Laid down throughout Foam Island are clips from recordings of this intimate social exploration, forming the backbone of the albums strength

What these samples do is offer a personal feel to Darkstar’s political commentary about a country losing touch with its sense of community.  In ‘Javan’s Call’ a young man discusses his relationships with family, friends, the town, and his optimism for its future. In ‘Through the Motion’ a young girl shows her disappointment at never having had the support or opportunity she needed to fulfil her ambitions of going to university, finding a good job and starting a family.  In ‘Inherent Fibre’ a more cheerful local discusses the drama of his teenage years on the street he was born and raised, with a closeness so real its as though your sat with him: ‘for now’ he says, ‘I’m just drinkin’ brandy with you.’

From these samples emerge the deep running themes of political isolation and social disillusionment, also present in the instrumentation lyrics of the album. In ‘Days Burn Blue’, vocalist Whalley shows his resentment towards the re-election of the Conservatives, singing ‘a grace untrue, the trade of youth, a grace untrue, a debt withdrew’. In ‘A Different Kind Of Struggle’ residents discuss their political disillusion to a backing of cold, metallic pads. In the most striking moment of the album, ‘Cuts’, upbeat and chiming synths are the backdrop to a matter-of-fact reading of a press release lifted from Kirklees Council’s website, addressing the local consequences of cuts to public spending. The culmination of all this is a powerful feeling of frustration towards an increasingly self preserved and single minded society.

Along with their immersive social exploration, Darkstar demonstrate their ability to compose catchy, interestingly structured electro-pop pieces, with ‘Stoke the Fire’, revolving around it’s bouncy, afro-beat hook, and lead single ‘Pin Secure’, with its slow and funky R&B influences, both standing out.

However when it comes to the fluidity of the album there are instances where these more pop-structured pieces and the sampled conversations seem get in the way of each other: Stoke the Fire doesn’t quite fit in amidst the stark realism that the conversation-based tracks in the first half of the album create; without the sample at the end of Through the Motions, and the penultimate track Javan’s Call, the second half of the album would feel a lot less stop-starty. It sounds as though Darkstar couldn’t quite decide how to fit their collected conversations into the electro-pop album they wanted to create.

However, FoamIsland remains a strong thought-provoking record, boldly tackling themes that are increasingly uncommon in music, and though slightly disjointedly, it engages you with them in an interesting and personal way.

Dan Fielding




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