Even in the ever-amorphous genre formerly known as dubstep, Darkstar didn’t quite fit in. The duo of Aiden Whalley and James Young released a handful of singles over the last few years, each release inching further away from the 2-step beats they started with. On North, they forsake beats entirely, transforming themselves into a downbeat synth-pop band. Think Burial’s Untrue meets The Tin Drum: evocations of abandoned factories, darkened underpasses and lakes at night.
The album’s lead single ‘Gold’ is a cover of a Human League b-side, though Darkstar treat it more like an early-eighties Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark track. Cautious, disinterested vocals float above mournful synths and skittering drums, doing away with the original’s juddering flourishes and jerky rhythm. Singer and new member James Buttery often sounds as if he’s struggling to emote against the melancholy electronics. In ‘Two Chords’, his voice is half-there, drifting above its backdrop but manipulated by it; by final track and album highlight, ‘When It’s Gone’, he has become computerized, moving down the path towards Kraftwerk’s robotics. ‘Ostkruez’ echoes Bowie’s Low instrumentals, whilst the title track wouldn’t be out of place on a Junior Boys album. Only the hypnotic ‘Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer’ betrays Darkstar’s origins – released last year as a single, it’s both danceable and unsettling, placing clipped vocal samples over a looped xylophone to create a skeletal cousin of the band’s earlier dubstep works.
With North, Darkstar successfully reinvent themselves as a synth-pop band without falling into the trap of revivalism. It’s a bold artistic move, and one that expands dubstep’s crossover potential further than ever before.