There’s a trend amongst the electronic music community of late to transplant their works into fine art establishments. I’ve been watching this unfold steadily over the last few years and the results are broadly innovative for music in general. Events like Sound It Out in collaboration with Boiler Room are excellent examples of how institutions like the V&A are continuously re-appropriating ostensible low-art forms into a fine art organisations. The advantage is that the artistic intent in electronic music becomes expansively recognised and in reciprocation it will inspire innovation amongst its artists. Watching Helm’s recorded performance at the Boiler Room take-over, there is a clear indication of this innovative attitude taking form at least amongst the more avant garde performers of our day. What is more significant however is the effect it is having on other artists too. During the same event, Untold aka Jack Dunning, was manipulating a modular synth somewhere else in the building.
This artist has always operated in the margins of the post-dubstep generation, charging the call for innovation in Bass orientated music. His Stereo Freeze EP was one of the more interesting examples born out of the vestiges of a wave of dupstep that saw many artist turn their focus elsewhere. His labels, Hemlock and Pennyroyal are always guaranteed to bring something interesting to the table, with the likes of Randomer and Joe featuring heavily in their respective catalogues. As an artist he’s never settled on any one instance of a sonic aesthetic and has never been one to buck to trend. True to this variable nature he is back with a new full-length album… Black Light Spiral.
The characteristic that stands out immediately for me is summed up on Wet Wool, which indicates the halfway mark on the album. In what could only be described as modular synth jam, something Mr. Dunning put into effect for the Friday Late V&A showcase, the beat-less number creates sonic atmospheres through the manipulation of a modular synth. This track summarises the improvised theme of the album perfectly. Black Light Spiral was apparently recorded within a week during July 2013, and as a result the composition is very much manifested in the spur-of-the-moment. The issue for me with improvisation as the final composition, is that it recalls only the most immediate musical idea in an artist’s consciousness, and I am always left to wonder what the result would have been if the ideas were allowed to develop even further. This is my general consensus throughout Black Light Spiral’s entirety too.
For Untold, this is just another stage in his personal development as an artist, and it is the obvious next step from the Change in Dynamic Environment series, but it does not mean he is necessarily breaking new ground. It is still very much based on an aesthetic of noise and drone compositions that can draw comparisons to artists like Emptyset and Mika Vainio, but it is in dire need of refinement if he is to join their ranks. From opener 5 Wheels, whose siren samples mark the beginning of the album over a sub bass drone, the sonic tapestries he creates definitely mark a shift into new territory for the producer with more focus on textures rather than form, but I constantly find myself looking for something more. Some tonal development or a textural possibility outside the parameters of what an analogue synth could offer. Samples do provide a new ingredient from Untold’s own biography, and on tracks like Drop it On the One and Sing A Love Song, they create some interesting devices. The latter uses a delay to great effect on a Reggae vocal to create an artificial contrapuntal rhythm. But I fear that the pallet of the whole album is somewhat limited and again my first instincts are to question the improvisational procedure.
Improvisation does inspire emotive responses as dictated by the artist’s own biography and situation, which is a welcomed addition for electronic music’s somewhat limited narrative range, but I do find the result one-dimensional on Black Light Spiral. It sounds more like a technical experiment rather than a personal one. It is more about the sound-design possibilities of synthesis than anything else here. He is clearly in the process of re-inventing the Untold sound as he has done so often in the past – the artist always reluctant to categorise himself – and although the results are very interesting, they do need some more work, especially during the mix down stage.
If Untold is in fact exploring the type of drone and noise fundamentals that draw comparisons to the likes of Emptyset, he needs to open the sound up rather than squeeze the life out. The tracks on Black Light Spiral are crushed with excessive compression to the point where any dynamic range is rendered moot. Strange Dreams and Hobthrush are extreme examples of this in action. Rather than inviting the listener in to explore the resonances in the harmonic field with a complex listening exprerience, it acts as an obtrusive wall of sound. It doesn’t create a new aural space for us to delve in to, but rather a sequential order of events as dictated by the producer’s actions. Granted, most tracks on the album are still beat orientated and might be compressed in that manner to offer the punchyness required for a club track, but I doubt that this was the concept behind this album. I’ve listened to it repeatedly during the course of writing this article, and at no point does anything inspire a more in depth listening exercise. The word “raw” pops up incrementally in the press release that accompanies this album and if the processes of making the album were the most imperfect, personal situation for the artist then it would not need to be emphasised with superficial techniques.
The improvisational aspect is very interesting indeed and adds a visceral element that is often absent form electronic music productions of this orientation and I welcome the fact that Untold is moving in this direction, but the album can’t function on those merits alone. It needs to develop the musical rather than technical ideas further. I look forward to getting an opportunity to see this as a live show, but for me Black Light Spiral does not quite get to where its supposed to be heading.