Paul Morley asks DARKSTAR what a post-dubstep world sounds like...
If Magnetic Man boldly announce that where you go after dubstep is right into the very manufactured heart of the middle of the flaring, spluttering spectacle of pop, ticking off for real the idea that dubstep is a global phenomonon and its specialist operators, cult dealers and commercial artists are on the same branded plane as Mark Ronson, Danger Mouse and Deadmau5, then Darkstar present some sort of retreat. They are quite happy, in a somber, anxious, dazed sort of way, to fall off the planet, and spin through space wiping all traces behind them with no idea whether they’ll ever land on anything solid. They’re falling away into themselves, as if their main ambition, amidst all the noise, trending, networking and implosive cultural breakdown, the general ever-present non-special bother that pop music has become, is to produce some sort of empty field, to advise people how to get rid of noises and sounds they haven’t chosen themselves and don’t really want.
Where you go after dubstep, suggest Darkstar, is anywhere you want to, as long as there is a lot of space, and time, the nearness of distance, and the sense that you’re on a boat leaving the shore, and you’re watching the lights disappear. Where you go after dubstep is into a state of trance, and an exploration of the idea, mangled a bit at the moment, that music can be made for a very particular purpose, and that this purpose might actually be about bringing the listener, and the musician, into a state of meditation, adoration or ecstasy.
Even though their first album North is on the Hyperdub label, for the sake of argument a leading dubstep label where dubstep remains something obscure, sealed off and esoteric if always on the tantalising verge of crossing over, Darkstar have produced a record that is drained of just about everything – frequency, volume, tempo, the breaking of formation, the reassembling of balance, the social conditions, the swarming bees, the chain of events, the scrambled tempestuous craving for sensation, the styles thrusting out, the bringing of the organic and the digital closer and closer, the degree of separation – that many of us might have finally worked out constitutes the essential nature of dubstep. They’ve cut themselves off, in a manner of speaking, as if they are losing their memory about what dubstep, and all other forms of electronic music, actually sound like, and making sound that is the very sound of this loss of memory, this withdrawal. It’s the sound of pop music fading away on the way to turning into something else, pop in a state of suspended animation, perhaps an epic attempt to recapture some necessary form of innocence.
North – which is set in a wild, uncanny and unsentimental north, where times goes on, as imagined over the years by those such as Joy Division, early Human League, that part of the Beatles that used the studio to fall off the edge of themselves and Jeff Noon, and it is also set in another opened up world that runs parallel with this north as imagined by the likes of Cluster, Robert Wyatt, Klaus Schulze, Dennis Bovell, Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Tortoise – is dubstep only if dubstep is actually at the very centre a matter of disturbance, and a form of avoidance. It’s dubstep if dubstep is a continuing form of research into not just where dubstep goes next but where electronic pop itself goes, and what difference does it make. It might be better to label it gauze, or fallen, or displaced, or post-present, or post-absent, or a force moving in one direction and a force resisting that movement.
It’s a part of pop’s aftermath in many of the ways that the xx is – a ghostly, not particularly nostalgic, strangely solemn assessment of just what the energy of pop music consisted of, why it was so convincing, delivered with a sort of disembodied glassed-in precision that some might say is overly passive and wiped out, even a little miserable and indifferent, and some might say is existential, illuminating and even spiritual. It proves that much of the experimental, more extreme side of dubstep is a reflection of a certain sort of studious progressive rock as much as a reflection of the hedonistic speed with which dance music turns over – if Magnetic Man are Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Dark Star are a little bit Egg, a little bit Caravan.
We talk in a room somewhere south of the river Thames, and the Darkstar three, James Buttery, James Young and Aiden Whalley, seem to have a lot on their mind. Perhaps they’re concerned that they’ve been listed as the Guardian’s New Band of the Day number 863, which would break the hearts of those wishing for some quiet dignity, even rare and wonderful anonymity, and also that they’ve also been already put in the running as winners of next year’s Mercury Award, which is enough to put anyone in a coma. Perhaps the making of their minimal epic, which flirts so gallantly with timelessness, has taken it out of them. Perhaps they just think their music says it all. What’s left to say?