The musical world has been saturated by artists attempting to collect and recontextualise sounds from the relatively recent past. Even a cursory dip into Simon Reynolds’ Retromania book proves highly informative of the sheer volume of music being produced on these terms. There’s the archiving and rearranging impulses of Leyland James Kirby, or the bountiful love for Vangelis that can be heard in the recent work of Kuedo or Zomby. This self-consciously atmospheric debut from new Planet Mu signing The Host therefore inevitably arrives feeling a little familiar.
Of course, this being a Planet Mu release in 2012, there are also hints here of the Footwork genre, very much on proud display in the form of the skittering beats and restless clutter of much of the album’s first half. Yet even that genre, very much of the present, is also harking back to earlier times, drawing not just on Chicago Juke but also on earlier house music trends and sounds.
The opening Neo-Geocities boldly sets out this album’s perspective. It’s just one of many web-inspired titles (Internet Archaeology, Angel Fire, 3am Surfing – probably the artist name The Host itself). It may be a suggestion that the internet has opened up an entirely new approach to how we relate to the past – and also that the present now becomes historic at an ever increasing rate. Geocities and Angelfire were the web services that quickly became only the vaguest of memories.
The Host is an album immersed in the memories of the not too distant past. Its use of vintage synths within a restless, modern context makes for an intentionally disorientating listen. Sometimes it works very well – as the smooth contours of Angel Fire are almost overpowered by constant distractions in the percussion parts. At other times, however, it simply feels as if there is too much going on, with little in the way of breathing space, melody or textural variation. This is certainly the case with Neo-Geocities, its relatively tranquil introduction a rather elaborate deception. Much of the rest of the track feels something akin to watching a Michael Bay movie – there are just too many explosions.
There is also something mildly offputting about the reverb-laden synth drums that characterise the otherwise fascinating Internet Archaeology. Sometimes the search for older sounds to capture and regenerate just seems to drag potentially intriguing tracks into an uncomfortably dated sound world. Working with drum machines and synths rather than computers ought to make this environment feel more human – but sometimes it actually simply seems alienating.
The Host works best when at its most nuanced, when greater attention is paid to providing breathing space and working with finer details. The shifting, compelling atmospheres of Rainy Sequences/Phosphene Patterns make for a particular highlight. There is actually a feeling that the moodscapes created by these synthesisers work better when the percussive excess is kept to a minimum.
As a document of how quickly technology is changing and its confusing effect on our lives, The Host is impressive and full of apposite ideas. Beyond this, however, it is a work that could benefit from a stronger individual sensibility and a greater engagement with melody. Sounds drift in and out of the mix, but rarely in such a way that they have much of a lasting impact.