Unknown Exception (Selected Tracks Vol. 1 2004-2008)
(Modern Love; 2008)
By George Bass | 22 August 2008
Another day, another dubstep. It’s strange, but even the very first record to accurately plot the subterranean grumblings of techno’s destiny—Leftfield’s Rhythm and Stealth (1999)—was met with a resounding harrumph once it had been dipped in the ears of the mainstream. For those more accustomed to candy, it was simply too bleak a crystal ball to run your fingers over. No lasers? No serotonin? Instead we get waves of tape-hissy mist and bass lines to trigger an avalanche? The people between meetings were quick to dismiss this as music purely for cheapskates—stuff that sounds the same through the walls of the club as it does from the heart of the dancefloor—and, until recently, it seemed like a fairly easy medium to colonise: uncharted, sprawling, and home to no-one in particular, much like 20th century Antarctica. The last couple of years, however, have seen a patient farming of the genre by a close-knit collaborators working in civil competition, together helping to father some of the most forward-thinking electronic output to emerge from the third millennium. In fact, there’s a more than laughable plausibility that this is exactly the kind of music we humans need to be listening to at the moment: something whose power can only be unlocked through fair and patient scrutiny; something without a veneer.
Hailing from the Pelicanneck touchstone of central Manchester, Andy Stott makes up magnetic north on the dubstep compass points of Croydon/Shoreditch/Soho. A car dealer by day, he transfers his knowledge of clanking production lines into a dark, foreboding laboratory of electronica, marking himself as a pioneer of the scene who’s permanently set on “Evolve.” Unknown Exception, the successor to his debut LP Merciless (2006), might not be the rug-pulling sophomore effort that some thought he’d respawn with, but by Christ does it show us what heights he’s capable of scaling, reminding us all how far it’s possible to go with just a brain and a handful of hardware.
His close relationship with Claro Intelecto (aka Mark Stewart) has obviously stoked his appetite for adventures in square-jawed minimalism, most notably on tracks like “Credit,” where black machines slide frowning through a polar hamlet. Behind the cymbals and clicking glaciers, Stott relentlessly goes about his business, creating soundscapes tailored for shittily-lit cities, where misfits head slowly in the direction of home listening, all of them scared to look up. From here he can instantly teleport you to the likes of “Replace,” whose tempered techno and pulsar swamps feel like Detroit via Roswell, and then back again to the triplicating subs and nuclear dew of “Fear Of Heights.” You wouldn’t want to bungee-jump off this one, not unless you’re drastically short of crash mats and feel like landing on a bed of dead speaker cones.
But Stott isn’t a musician content to wallow in gloom and concrete alone. Most crucially, he manages to work some vitamin-rich nature into his array of programs and crunching: the sunkissed groove of “Long Drive” slouches in front of staccato keyboards, loose and cool like life on the midnight circuit, while “Massacre” plumps for a more medieval theme, letting signal processors flail against dripping stonework. Seriously, anyone dismissing the dubstep/techno manipulation as disposable needs their head whacked with a trenching shovel; this is music for considerable timelines, the sounds of collapsed stars condensing. Try “Fine Metallic Dollar” and see for yourself as he sends silkworms cavorting through caverns of dub, Darth Vader tutting as he follows and winds up the mess. You can see why the record’s twelve components sold faster than cost-price petrol when they were originally released in chunks of vinyl.
It may be badged as an assembly of rare fish and lost singles, but Unknown Exception hides in an aura that’s much, much greater than the total sum of its parts. At seventy-three minutes it’s not exactly a travel record (unless you’re flying Virgin Blue, that is) so you shouldn’t expect to fall in love as soon as your finger’s off the play button, but techno this deep isn’t written to be snapped off in sentences. Stott keeps a clear head as he marches his comedown pads through a grey energy, aware from the outset what separates a good album from one bordering on the essential. This is drill for lapsed machinery: something the opposite of livid that crosses near-infinite distances as easily as most people change channels. And you can trust the bloke broadcasting without having to adjust your set, too—after all, he helps look after the machines that take you to work every day.