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Nathan Fake: Steam Days / Paean (Border Community)

Nathan Fake has always wandered the outer perimeter of dance music. Along with Luke Abbott and label boss James Holden, he has a very particular sensibility that seems to have one foot firmly planted in woozy, otherworldly sounds while the other is often busy tapping on the dancefloor. Rumor has it (via the internet, at least) that Fake recorded loads of material using hardware and then pared it down to these 11 tracks — they work so well together that I’d never have known that it wasn’t a concise opus of work. Steam Days highlights his split attention to these two worlds quite well, starting off with “Paean,” an anti-anthem of sorts, with portamento synths weaving in and out of one another while the rhythm section maintains an off-kilter groove. This contrast between the dancefloor and less predictable sounds continues throughout Steam Days. That he recorded much of the album using vintage and hardware gear is not surprising; it lends the music an unusually timeless quality. It also makes much of the music sound looped, but not in a way that’s tedious — instead, it’s reliably cyclical and works in layers, adding on and then gradually subtracting. “Iceni Strings” is such a track, with its galloping bass synth triplets and sweeping pads building and dissipating. (I did a write-up of the Iceni Strings EP that preceded the album here.) The timeless quality of these tracks strikes me in that they seem to simultaneously reference all sorts of older music (Warp’s Artificial Intelligence era, old LFO, Drexciya, and more) without sounding merely like homage. There’s something about it that sounds exciting and vibrant and new to me, too — maybe just that my ears are delighted by newly hearing it every time. Most tracks have a darker, melancholy melodic center amidst any of the dancefloor compatibility enabled by the rhythm section, which is perhaps what makes Steam Days resonate for me. He occasionally showcases that mood front and center on a track like “Rue,” where the beats subside and let dreamy synth pads do the heavy lifting, but in many cases it’s not so obvious. “Neketona” has an urgency about it that’s both insistent but wistful, while closer “Warble Epics” lives up to its name with a bit of a rock n’ roll beat to complement its dire, descending chord changes… it’s a track that would sound right at home under any Thom Yorke project name. The album is a stunner that may take time to grow on you. Give it a chance and you won’t be disappointed. Surely this album scores high among the musical highlights of 2012.

“Paean” more recently got the remix treatment on an EP. Lone applies his signature sound to the source material, lifting the soaring melodic refrain and recontextualizing it in a more uplifting dancefloor context. What it lacks in the mystique of the original, it makes up for in beaming optimism. Lukid turns in the other remix, focusing on the grittier, textural side of things, with a 1-2 punch of distorted, pitched bass kicks leading the way. Lukid more or less discards any of the musical ideas of the original and instead recycles sounds in new ways that are dustier, grimier, dirtier. Both takes are interesting in different ways, although neither outdoes the majesty of the original.

Buy Steam Days: Boomkat | Bleep | iTunes | Amazon
Buy PaeanBoomkat | Bleep | iTunes | Amazon