Nathan Fake

Hard Islands

(Border Community; 2009)

By David Abravanel | 18 August 2009

Hard Islands is a good album—good, but confused. Nathan Fake’s debut, Drowning in a Sea of Love (2006), found him making crunchy, Technicolor compositions in the vein of Four Tet or the first Manitoba record. Now, conversely, Hard Islands bleeds acid, its brasher sequences consistently ripped to shreds by layers of expertly assembled DSP, the overall effect that of a less emotionally draining Clark. More importantly, and not exactly a good sign, it never quite sounds like Fake is entirely sure that he wants to be doing this; from the scene of it, finding his way to a sophomore album gave Fake an intense bout of creative indigestion, purged through fire in tracks like the coolly incessant “Castle Rising.”

It’s worth stating that Fake is an excellent producer, pulling out all the stops and lining up one trick after another. Then one over another, one under, another a few feet away. Nary a synth line goes without being detuned, distorted, and shaken within an inch of its life; nary a percussive idea is investigated without two or three more conjoined. Thus exists an album that is technically impressive, but, at points, seems like it’s banking more on that than on being compositionally sound. Closer “Fentiger,” for example, pits shotgun toms against deteriorated synths, with drastic, rapid-fire insertions of reverb and distortion to glitch things out a bit. Unfortunately, this effect jamming can’t mask the feeling that “Fentiger” is a decent faux-µ-Ziq track that goes on for three minutes longer than it needs to.

It’s this obsession that, usually an electronic musician’s best friend, is Fake’s most glaring flaw. Follow me: the more distance that separates us from it, the more it appears that the ’90s was a very special (read: obsessive) decade for electronic music and one that won’t soon be repeated. Electronics were still something foreign to the average listener, which made “electronica” a perfectly marketable kind of nerdy punk by the latter half of the decade; the results were accessible, but the process was still guarded by those with access to equipment and the right teachers. Certainly, electronic composition has become both more accessible and limitless in the noughties—things that took days of work (not to mention thousands of dollars worth of machinery) fifteen years ago are now a half-hour away in a digital audio workstation. This democratization of the process, however, coinciding with the rise of web-hosted media, has flooded ears to the point that now it’s easier to get noticed but harder, unless one unveils something truly shocking and innovative, to make it past the first album.

And that’s where, I imagine, Nathan Fake’s anxieties lie at the moment and why Hard Islands is so much more aggressively digital. I assume Fake wants this to be the wild screaming testament of an artist demanding to be noticed for his brilliance—and on cuts like the stellar opener “Turtle,” it absolutely is—but the album’s left naked at a number of moments, exposing us more to an artist throwing out everything he has in the hope of having something brilliant, anything, stick. It’s a sign of the times, and it’s not Fake’s fault. I mean, it can’t be easy for young electronic musicians these days. Not that it’s much easier for anyone else, what with all these once-promising careers, this “potential” distilled down to a couple blog-worthy singles and a premature fade-out. While the problem—the constant desire for something fresh—is nothing new, rules have been rewritten for us increasingly ravenous ear-flocks so that everything seems over-genrefied, easily compartmentalized, and, by consequence and with few exceptions, the output from young electronic talents is ostensibly like a game of catch-up. It doesn’t help that loads have been blown in ways that never before seemed possible: having heard a record like Venetian Snares’ bit-blasted masterpiece Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding (2004), for example, it’s hard to then be technically impressed by any kind of jumbled beats that don’t totally and eventually derail.

That said, Hard Islands is hardly a wash, just frustratingly short of the sound statement Fake wanted to make. There are plenty of easier routes to have taken, and it’s commendable that Fake risked baring everything rather than chase after some kind of irony to save face from his difficulties. This isn’t the easiest album to love, but it’s also as deeply revealing for its flaws as it is for its triumphs, the conception and afterbirth of artistic perseverance on record, no matter what the objective results.