Some artists, once settled on a sound that suits them, are content simply to plough the same unimaginative furrow year after year, album after album. Whether it’s complacence, in the knowledge that their loyal fan base will continue to dip into their pockets, a lack of the talent and inspiration necessary to evolve or (in cases such as Stereophonics) both, more often than not these meat and potato acts slowly fade away into irrelevance with the passing of the years. It’s refreshing, then, to listen to Foam Island, the latest release by London-based duo Darkstar, so clearly is it the work of people willing to take risks to move their music forward.
After first emerging back in 2007 with the scratchy dubstep singles Dead 2 Me and Lilyliver, it wasn’t long before James Young and Aiden Walley began to differentiate themselves from the narrow confines of that genre, a development that gathered pace with the addition of vocalist James Buttery. By the time they released second album News From Nowhere in early 2013, Darkstar had become a fully fledged electro-pop band – a transition arguably signposted as far back as 2010 when they covered The Human League’s You Remind Me Of Gold. Then Buttery left the group and the next move for Young and Walley, shorn of the voice central to their new direction, was hard to predict.
Foam Island is the answer and it is by some distance Darkstar’s most interesting, ambitious and accomplished record yet. Restless, challenging and difficult to pigeonhole, it is simultaneously a return to the urban atmospherics of their earlier work and a brave leap forward thematically and texturally. The dreaded term ‘concept album’ may have long been deeply unfashionable, but Foam Island is surely intended to be a state of the nation comment on the impact of the Conservative Party’s austerity politics.
Opening track Basic Things begins with portentous, sinister woodwind and the intertwining voices of two northern youngsters explaining the simple ‘basic things’ they expect from life. This sets the theme for what’s to come; the argument Young and Walley are making is that British people – essentially decent, hard working and with a deep rooted sense of community – deserve better than their current government give them. This picture is built throughout Foam Island with a series of vocal recordings made during the build up to the last general election, ranging from an officious overview of local authority efficiency savings on Cuts to a young man expressing his affection and hope for his local area on Javan’s Call.
These snapshots interchange with full length songs which are equally arresting: from the afrobeat rhythms of Stoke The Fire to the shimmering swirl of pizzicato strings of Go Natural and the bleeping synths of Pin Secure, there is an impressive sonic depth to the backdrops; urgent and ever-shifting, like the lyrics they are imbued with both oppression and optimism. Walley proves himself to be a more than serviceable lead vocalist, sensibly realising his limitations and allowing his singing to become part of the overall suite of instruments rather than wrestling for centre stage, whether it be gently cooing on Go Natural or shrouded in vocoder on Through The Motions.
Inevitably, there will be those who view Foam Island’s bold vision as self-indulgent and overstretched. It is true that there is a lack of immediately accessible melodies; the music is often dense and confrontational and the spoken word samples and explicitly political angle will not appeal to some. Yet others will acknowledge that Darkstar have produced a cinematic, highly intelligent record that has something relevant to say about modern Britain.