Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Nathan Fake - Steam Days
Border Community, 2012

As "The People's List" is unveiled over the next three days, there are a number of albums I'll be looking to see where they place because they seem to function as barometers or signifiers of certain strains of indie-dom. Of those albums, Kid A is the one that I'm most interested to find out about, and not just because it's one of my favourite albums--along with Kid A, there's a whole constellation of albums and artists that defined a certain aesthetic, a certain sensibility, a certain sound that was, for awhile, the sound of the present and the future. Warp Records and 1990s IDM played a big role in shaping that sound. When it came out, discussions of Kid A seemed almost inevitably to be discussions of influence, as if the only important thing was determining from where Radiohead drew those sounds. Once the genealogy was straight, these discussions suggested, everything else would slot itself into place. That the process of tracing this genealogy in reviews and promos for the album let in a whole new spectrum of sounds and ideas about music than were normally covered by reviewers dedicated to slackers with guitars and math-rock bands was a happy accident. So, Kid A--via the fact that it led people who didn't normally (read: ever) talk about these things to mention electronic music, to list Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, and others, and to open a whole new world to listeners of a certain age and background--is and was momentous.

As recently as 2009, Pitchfork officially held Kid A to be the best album of the 2000s. This list makes for interesting reading still, as it at once confirms a pretty conservative bent (all of the albums one would expect to make that list are accounted for, most in exactly the places one would expect) and offers a glimpse at some bands whose stock doesn't seem to be riding quite as high today (Sigur Ros, the Strokes, and Modest Mouse all in the top ten seems like a stretch for "The People's List," but I could be wrong). I believe there's a good chance that "The People's List" will be the final enshrinement of a certain canon of indie music, an entrenchment of an orthodoxy that just might be one of the last stabs at importance as a criterion for evaluation. What I'm not sure of is to what degree the orthodoxy that sprung up around Kid A (and there were certainly people into the things influencing Radiohead long before Kid A was released, but I do think that a band of Radiohead's size and of its position in the indie rock landscape so publicly displaying these musicians' influence on them had a crystallizing effect) will remain the orthodoxy. Back in 2005, Nitsuh Abebe wrote of a world in which "indie kids no longer bulk up their mix-tape credibility with some Autechre or Squarepusher on side two, and the new daydream alternative to rock attitude comes mostly from German electronics." That last clause now seems almost painfully of its time--I can't remember how long it's been since German electronics seemed the choice of indie kids, and given the post-everything maximalism and omnivorous listening habits of today's milieu, it might not even be possible to name any one thing that could be that choice today.

Nathan Fake's Steam Days is a pretty fascinating album to listen to in light of all this, as it seems to speak to a time when there was a specific choice for indie kids, a time that has largely passed. I first became interested in Fake's music when Jess Harvell described his work as "plastic techno My Bloody Valentine homages" in a review of the deluxe reissue of Seefeel's Quique. I've checked out a few of his releases since then, though nothing has really caught my ear in the way that that description caught my imagination. I'd be lying if I said that Steam Days was really much different: for all that Fact might describe the album as his "most dynamic album-length work to date," much of it feels same-y and undistinguished as the songs mostly do the same thing over and over again. What hurts most is the fact that Fake's music seems to be mining territory that others have already covered to such dazzling ends. Opener "Paean," for example, feels straight off the Richard D. James Album, its melody and structure somewhere between "Cornish Acid" and "Cornmouth." Unfortunately, while it's accomplished enough, the melody lacks staying power and the combination of playfulness and slight surreality that lifts James' best work. Regrettably, this same problem crops up over and over again; Fake is a gifted producer--nothing here sounds out of place--but nothing feels particularly necessary, either. By the time "Neketona" arrives, it's hard not to start wondering how many times you've already heard this track.

The limited palette on display in the first half doesn't help matters. The vinegar-y backing to "Iceni Strings" feels like it might be intriguing at first, but it's not abrasive enough to really set off the track's melody (nor is it really that different from what's appeared on the first two tracks). The titular strings are nicely soaring, though I wish they had more to do besides repeat a pretty but otherwise nondescript part. Similarly, the hollow, brittle drums that underpin most of the album's songs feel stuck in some turn-of-the-millennium hinterland in which they're doomed to perpetual good taste: nothing really rages, and even syncopations are relaxed and obvious. It's disturbingly close to coffee shop soundtrack territory, in this regard. What urgency is present on the album is often the result of straight 4/4 hi-hats or snares that become tiresome long before they have the chance to become transcendent, as on "Harnser." 

In contrast, "Old Light" is one of the best things here, as a beat with a slyly funk hitch in its step is accompanied by a distant melody that strikes the right balance between melancholy and mawkish and in so doing manages to be evocative without being sentimental. There's a deftness in its construction that just underlines how much more I wish some of these songs did. The second half of the album seems to pick up on these qualities and is altogether more promising. "World of Spectrum" is intriguingly aggressive, not a million miles removed from the sounds and textures on display on Squarepusher's Ufabulum. Especially against the too-polite backdrop of the majority of the album, its slightly harsher approach is a welcome intrusion and a chance to get the blood pumping. "Rue" is another highlight: its droning chords are genuinely affecting as it pulls off a similar trick to CFCF's "Exercise 4 (Spirit)" or the backing to Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack." The primary-colour melody of "Sad Vember" isn't quite as striking as that of "Old Light," though it is quite nice, but its final minute of hissy, tuneless, pitch-damaged synths feels indulgent and unearned.

The album closes with its two longest tracks: "Glow Hole" and "Warble Epics." The former clocks in at just a shade under eight minutes and moves from ring modulated textures to more mid- to late-90s Warp nods before returning to those ring modulated sounds in its bridge. The melody creeps back in and the drums get a little heavier, but as a whole, the track isn't really dynamic enough to make use of its slightly lengthier run time--its valleys don't feel like valleys and its peaks are too choreographed and inevitable to be genuinely exciting. "Warble Epics" opens with some nicely mock-portentous synths in a much appreciated moment of levity before rigidly 4/4 hi-hats take over. The drums are very upfront and dominate the mix a little, which is a shame because they're not as interesting as some of Fake's other bits of programming. The melody has some intriguing twists to it, and when it finally comes more to the fore a little under halfway through the track it's a welcome development. There's nothing radically different or unique about "Warble Epics"--it sums up what Steam Days is about fairly well, and is one of the more solid tracks on the album. The coda to the track might be the best part, though, a bit of nicely suggestive music that hovers in the distance like heat over a hump in the road.    

I can imagine being impressed by this album if I'd discovered it at 14 when I was reading all about Kid A and its influences. What I can't imagine, though, is being captivated by it in a way that the classics of those Warp Superstars of old captivated me when I heard them for the first time. It's not that Fake is doing anything wrong--largely, he's doing everything right. The problem is that he's doing the right things because they're the obvious, established things to do. The album desperately needs a challenge, an angle to work that would elevate these tracks from filler to attention grabbers. As it is, too much of the album goes by without making an impression or offering a way to differentiate one track from another. What's most disappointing about the album, ultimately, is that its building blocks have already been cannibalised and assimilated by other other genres to fresher, more interesting ends. It feels timeless in the wrong sense: Steam Days doesn't transcend its moment and stand as an immortal work, but rather feels equally unmoored from the present and the past that inspires it, without a place to exist and in which one could interact with it.

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