James Young and Aiden Whalley take a bold leap forward and backward with their debut album North, and help their label Hyperdub diversify in the process. Darkstar’s earlier singles like “Squeeze My Lime” and “Need You” saw the duo firmly entrenched in Kode 9 inspired dubstep and grime, so then the music on North may take listeners by surprise upon first spin. Why you ask? Because the two-step beats and funky grime you’ve come to expect from Darkstar, have been replaced with cold synth lines and dark pop vocals courtesy of James Buttery.
Essentially what we have here is a synth-pop album in the style of Junior Boys, with Darkstar bringing life to a genre that can can often seem ragged, hackneyed and thin. Early standout track “Deadness” illuminates this quite well, with smooth OMD-style synths, gently processed vocals, and an amazing darkwave guitar-line coda that evokes plenty of emotion and rainy day pathos. The following track is the already revered “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer”, and it fits in snugly on the playlist even though it stands in stark contrast to the mood on the rest of the album.
“Under One Roof” brings the emotion right back, with woozy synth lines and Buttery’s voice stitched cleverly within the mix of synths and rhythm section. The overall feel of the album is one made for the sombre days of autumn — where it’s still not yet cold enough to snow, but starts to get dark in mid-afternoon, creating a bleak liminal state between seasons.
Penultimate track “Dear Heartbeat” is perhaps the most traditionally pop number on the album, with a twinkling piano backdrop and steady drumbeat, yet it still retains the stark motif throughout. Closing track “When it’s Gone” sounds like a new, slowed down version of “Squeeze My Lime” and is a dreamy track that sort of drifts in and out and seems to hint at further transformations of Young and Whalley’s sound. Buttery closes the album singing: “I won’t forget you…” and with North, Darkstar have created a creeper of an album, one that will subtly seduce with each successive listen, and is undoubtedly one of the year’s most unforgettable albums.