Review: Second Storey – Bismuth (Houndstooth)

Sometimes when I hear claims that a producer is straddling the lines between various genres I get a strange tingle of worry. Part of that is probably a hangover from the sort of thinking that gives us adages like ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ and all the other fun, doom laden epithet we enjoy flinging around when the devil is in us. Whatever the reasons, it’s probably deeply churlish of me, and the fact is that modern British electronic music has, perhaps more than almost any other national scene, got where it has largely because there has always been a fantastic refusal to stay in one place, and a serious, almost pathological, desire to chuck as many different influences into the pot just for the hell of it.

While Alec Storey’s first release on Houndstooth since last year’s One Sound/Layer Lock 12″ arrives with such claims already in place, promises of music which draws on electro, bass, and IDM for sustenance, the exciting thing isn’t that the sounds here nod between the various genres with abandon. Rather, there is a steadfast refusal to duck too far towards any one sonic theme and Bismuth is at its best when it’s seeking out a commonality of mood and energy rather than anything as simplistic as tones and chord changes.

In fact, while the record may indeed be rooted in UK Bass (like IDM, an increasingly meaningless catch-all term) for much of its heft, it never ceases to throw shadows under the grainy light of classic electro. Not only electro, to be truthful, for there are flecks of vintage Detroit techno here and there, and more than just traces of the joyful experimentalism once so prevalent in electronica in the years following acid house’s rise where big dollops of ravey energy were worked into the sound.

But through it all, Second Storey never let’s go of something that is entirely of his own making. While the influences are bold, they are relegated to the grunt work instead of being held up as the heroes there often made out to be elsewhere. Opener Bismuth carries a vibe that is recognizable enough, but it’s refracted through the claustrophobic atmospherics, ably assisted by the taut, lashing drums and snaking melodic touches which feed into little motifs which saturated the tight groove with bittersweet and fragile aura. Vapour Valve in turn, carries less of its brethren’s clarity, but makes up for it once it gets going with a vintage slice of silicon funk, endlessly ducking and rising, until it eventually seems to fracture away in its own wide-eyed lunacy.

Even when the music leans more towards the purer end of his sound, as on the compressed, no-nonsense Grand Rapid, or is stretching things out to a delirious degree across Helicat’s shattered vistas, it’s all underpinned by the feeling that Second Storey understands it isn’t the eclecticism of his tastes that gives the music life, but the fact that underneath the aural costumes and theatrics the energy all comes from the same place. UK music is in rude health just now, but Bismuth stands out in particular as a record which encapsulates much of what makes the scene not only so exciting, but vital too. This is proper mutant funk.