Starkey - Ear Drums and Black Holes

by Rich Morris Rating:9 Release Date:2010-04-19

Philadelphia is a place in which many a great urban artist has resided. You can't write a history of hip hop without a mention of Jazzy Jeff. Eve's good. Will Smith is mostly harmless. But it is fairly unlikely that many would have thought that one of the finest purveyors of the distinctly British dance sub-genre dubstep would have hailed from this American city. Maybe it's because the British can grasp so tiresomely to its home-grown genres, shouting their origins like a guy coughing loudly when in public with his pretty girlfriend. 'Is all Saaaf London,' the loyal dub-steppers announce. 'Saaaf London!' But I would put it to them that they could be missing a trick with all that musical patriotism. And that trick is Starkey.

There's something truly genre-crossing about the producer's second album from Planet Mu. It sheds a lot of the usual dub and reggae roots of dubstep in favour of a more classically electronic sound, with reverb infected big pads sounding like they've come directly from an 80s synthesizer. That's also true of the fuzzy bass. And my God, there is bass. Tonnes of the stuff, lying about the place, all as intricate as the albums drums and as fat as a planet.

The bass quite rightly plays an important role, but not just to give dance floor oomph. Many of the bass lines serve as counter melodies and effects themselves, giving the tunes a far more playful and organic sound. Which is not to say that it is all heavy and pounding. In fact, Starkey has one of the deftest ears for melody in dubstep, or in any form of electronic music. Tracks like 'Spacecraft', 'Alienstyles' and the energetic 'Pleasure Points' owe a lot of their brilliance to some quite beautifully composed tunes. And beauty, like the bass, floods this album. It's even better on tracks like 'Fourth Dimension', where it has to be sought out amid all the chaos and the Lyn Collins samples and the shiny synths. The track that emphasises Starkey's melodic gift is the lovely and melancholic 'New Cities', with its weird hook and soulful vocal by Japanese vocalist Kiki Hitomi.

Actually, all the vocalists are served well. They're almost all MCs, which is fairly unsurprising, but despite this - and the exception of the cool and stripped down 'Club Games' - they are all given backing tracks as inventive and well thought-out as the instrumental tracks.

Ear Drums and Black Holes is - and I hate to use this term - a genuinely great 'summer' album. Its warm and inviting sound deserves as much play at home with a beer and a barbie and a dedicated ear as it does booty-shaking on the dance floor. If there are any dubious music fans who are yet to dip a toe into the pool which is dubstep, then they really should look towards this. Masterful stuff.

James Naylor

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