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White Noise: Damu – Unity

Monday, 31 October 2011

Damu – Unity



Ridin' The Hype (Feat. Trim)

If anything, 2011 has been most clearly marked by the emergent bass scene and the stratospheric rise of electronic atmospheric artists, and it is the haughty company of the latter that Damu seeks to join. The year has seen brilliant LPs from the likes of Rustie, Balam Acab and Nicolas Jaar preach the cinematic to dancier contemporaries, and Damu’s debut is technically great, but begs the question- does he have a distinctive enough artistic voice to join these ranks?

Before I answer that, I’d like to take a closer look at the tracks themselves, and how Damu has chosen to translate his early promise on the Mermaid and Ridin’ EPs into a full-length debut. It’s clear from the off that the most distinctive traits of his glittering sound are all present; iridescent synths, scattered and textured percussion, with some well-employed RnB samples littering the field. The sound is shown off well in the first few tracks; second cut Breathless is as vibrant as they come. An Amerie sample (recently heard in Jacques Greene’s What U R) and rushing instrumentals are engineered into a pacey tune, and showcase gloriously Damu’s ability to use a few colourful and intoxicating elements to conjure a sunny and irresistible groove. The same great sense of pacing is evident on the opposite end of the album, where Plasm rushes similarly but with darker synths rising to a fever pitch before dissolving in fuzz.

The first three proper tracks all offer the same approach as Breathless, such as After Indigo’s bassy dreamscape and the gorgeous L.O.V.E, in which scifi synths stabs and bouncy steel drums simmer under a lovely vocal sample. These sun-drenched compositions are irresistibly happy, and there’s enough know-how under the hood to make them equally worthy of the listener’s respect for Damu’s production prowess. Elsewhere straight-up dance number Ridin The Hype remixes one of Damu’s earlier releases with Trim’s deep vocals matched well by Damu’s energetic and shimmering sounds. The track shows this elastic instrumentation at its best; discrete melodies and shifting percussion puncture the soundfield perfectly and create a surprisingly cohesive whole.

This surprising level of cohesion is appreciated, and in fact a lot of Unity may come as a bit of a surprise to the listener. Beyond his sunny sounds the back end of the album offers some excellent cuts, from Plasm’s thrills to Ether, which  is a perfect example of how Damu makes a track airy and otherworldly while still being eminently danceable. Meanwhile closer Don’t Cry In My Bed is so energetic and lively with its RnB inflections and Dead Prez sampling that it’s an utter joy to hear.

Unfortunately, sometimes these surprises don’t really work in Damu’s favour. Brief interlude Weapon #3 hints at a darker tone to follow but isn’t really solid enough to denote the drastic change in tone that occurs midway through the LP. Next is the dark and mechanical Maths Is Fine For Sum, which builds from a near-ambient intro into a tumbling and surprisingly deft slice of 2step, reminiscent of early Aphex Twin. Following this is the similar Cheat When U Compete where bright synths invade a dark dubstep landscape, and here Damu appropriates his distinctive RnB vocals and locates them here where they sound lost and paranoid in the mix. It’s a clever move and these darker numbers are surprisingly technically proficient considering how drastically different they are, but they feel a tad soulless and generic to me. It’s almost as if in stretching to encompass more styles; these darker techno takes, the sub-Zomby synths of Waterfall of Light, he loses his voice somewhat. Creating music is always a case of balancing light and dark and, seeing that the opening and closing tracks are the strongest here (excepting midway standout Ridin The Hype), it seems Damu is far more at home and confident in the light.

I feel that Damu may have spread himself a little thin in terms of the ambition of this LP. He tries a lot of different tones and styles and they’re all fairly well produced, but generally its only the ones that mine his distinctive sound that feel special. Elsewhere, although these are richly layered tracks they can end up sounding a little thin and weightless, similar to a problem I had with SBTRKT’s self-titled LP earlier this year. I think the main reason that these stylistic variations don’t quite work is because when he goes beyond his distinctive style one is forced to ask whether these tracks actually sound particularly different from what others are doing, and the answer is that they don’t quite sound different enough. There’s a lot of Kimbie-esque percussion, Zomby-like synths and Rustie levels of energy and it means Damu’s voice isn’t wholly distinctive in Unity, and as a complete album experience it suffers considerably because of this.

I definitely don’t mean to say that Unity isn’t worth listening to, because it really is. Breathless, L.O.V.E, Ridin The Hype and Don’t Cry In My Bed are all fantastic tracks, and there are quite a few quality tunes besides. This is a very well-produced but not entirely individual debut LP that showcases an artist who doesn’t seem to be 100% sure what kind of music he wants to be making, and for an album called Unity this feels slightly disconcerting. But when all’s said and done, if there are tracks as good as some of these it’s hard to care too much about these missteps – this is effortlessly enjoyable and energetic music that is always surprising, and crucially Damu gets a lot more right than he does wrong.



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