Formerly one-half of dubstep act Vex’d, Bristol-based producer Roly Porter has been composing his own solo material for almost a decade now, starting with 2011’s Aftertime, developing his style into something altogether more cinematic than his earlier club-based music. Porter’s last album, 2016’s epically spacey Third Law, consolidated his reputation as an artist firmly ensconced in the fertile ground that now exists somewhere between modern classical and electronica, home to an increasingly diverse range of musicians from Nils Frahm and Max Cooper to Jon Hopkins.
New release Kistvaen – which takes its name from a type of Stone Age granite tomb found predominantly in Dartmoor, southwestern England – feels similarly mystical and weighty in tone to its predecessor, a mood backed up by Porter’s self-proclaimed quest to explore the similarities in emotional and social rituals between the Neolithic period and today through the album. Constructed of dense, portentous walls of sound, built from combinations of field recordings, folk instrumentation and digital processing, it certainly conjures up images of windswept, rugged landscapes and impending doom at the hands of human sacrifice, or some other, similarly grisly fate.
Kistvaen features three vocalists: Mary-Anne Roberts, from medieval Welsh music duo Bragod; Ellen Southern, of Bristol’s Dead Space Chamber Music group; and Phil Owen, a singer and researcher in vocal traditions. However, they appear more as disembodied spectres than as distinctive voices, merging into the maelstrom of sinister atmospherics. Echoes of Porter’s dubstep past occasionally emerge – for example, the ghostly piano at the start of An Open Door.
At times – most evocatively on Burial, with its huge, clanging slabs of noise and white noise distortion – Kistvaen’s impact is genuinely monumental and terrifying. Overall though, the album’s consistently murky, somewhat synthetic production is its downfall, lacking the clarity and richness to match the sonic ambition of its creator, and with simply too many elements jostling to break through without success. The June release date also arguably doesn’t help, as this is music best absorbed in wintry darkness, rather than in the balmy sunshine of England’s increasingly warm summers. All in all, a brave but flawed outing.