Howie B - Down With The Dawn

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2014-04-07

Howie B announces his return to solo work, after a long sojourn producing and creating film soundtracks, with a lo-fi, squelchy bass sound like something off 70s Doctor Who. From there, opening track ‘Frankie’s City’ evolves into a dense, multi-layered work of electronica, its feel of urban paranoia enhanced by John Carpenter synth and what sounds like gunfire periodically going off in the background.

Howie B has said that the music on Down With the Dawn was made during a dark period in his life, and you certainly get a sense of that on an album which seems to frequently inhabit long shadows and endless nights. However, the other influence on the record is Howie renewing his love affair with techno, in particular spending many weekends at legendary London club Fabric. This is immediately apparent, especially on the minimalist beats and depth-pulses which make up a large part of the excellent 11-minute ‘Run Always’.

For a man whose work, albeit often behind the scenes, defined so much of UK electronic music in the 90s, through Soul II Soul, Bjork and Tricky, it’s noticeable that Howie doesn’t seem to be trying to move with the times too much here. There are no ‘drops’ on Down With the Dawn, and no attempt to hitch a ride on Daft Punk’s disco revival wagon. No doubt Howie could have done that if he’s really wanted to (the man has, after all, explored so many genres and styles through his various guises), but for the most part the music here sounds like the result of a man trying to please no one but himself.

Such an inward-facing, take-me-as-I-am attitude is both Down With the Dawn’s strength and its weakness. Howie is here mining a seam of music which is neither club banger nor early-morning ambient. Instead, as on album highlight ‘Ganzi’, where harsh, industrial beats and heavily processed vox clash with melodic synth-lines, it recalls so much great British electronic music from times passed: Cabaret Voltaire, The Normal, Throbbing Gristle, Aphex Twin – it feels like Howie is drawing from a deep well of iconoclastic experimentation.

The unfortunate flip-side of this can be found on ‘Kazoo’, a track whose ‘that’ll do’ name accurately reflects what was very probably a bit of fun in the studio to amuse its maker. It’s still a lovely production – the backing twinkles and strobes, recalling Kraftwerk’s ‘Neon Lights’ – but the irritating buzzing and parping of the eponymous instrument means the track outstays its welcome long before its four minutes are up.

Overall, Down With the Dawn is a little too redolent in places of a bedroom producer messing around while he smokes a spliff, impressing himself but bypassing any impulse to edit. That said, its highpoints are undeniable, such as the title track’s merging of DJ Shadow noir cool with Brian Eno space and ambiance. And Howie is clearly stretching himself: ‘Authentication’ is a work of pure, string-led, chamber music without a beat in earshot. And it’s beautiful.

Down With the Dawn can be a difficult work to penetrate at times, almost autistic in its insularity, detailing landscapes only to express what its creator feels. But it’s a work which rewards repeat listens and augurs well for Howie’s next solo work. 

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