Thursday, May 31, 2012

Now Is The Time: Photek - Solaris

A quick glance through Rupert Parkes' discography shows a visible gap in output between 2000 and 2011.  Parkes, better known as Photek, is a drum 'n bass legend, crafting a signature sound in the late 90s that sounded unlike the rest of the genre fare.  In interviews, Parkes states that he's remained busy throughout the "downtime," collaborating with the likes of Trent Reznor and producing for other acts and film scores.  For those of us who are primarily album-listeners though, he dropped off the map.  Yes, he did release a compilation of tracks in 2007 called Form & Function II, but that's more of a collection of scattered material than an actual album, and I just don't think those tracks are any good.

As of 2011, Photek seems to have returned to the scene in full force, and by that I mean the popular club scene, not drum 'n bass.  In fact he's sidled up to the post-dubstep bass kickers more than anything with his Aviator and Avalanche EPs, plus collaborations with current darlings of the moment FaltyDL, Boddika, and Pinch.  So, prior to this recent turn, what's the last product of significance from Photek?  It's 2000's Solaris: an exploration of house and techno with only a slight tinge of the dnb sound that Photek staked his name on.  Strangely, Solaris comes off as a strong precursor to the kinds of post-dubstep sounds produced by Joy Orbison et al.

I was very hot-and-cold on Solaris when it debuted.  I had grown into Parkes' paranoid "intelligent" dnb tropes: cold, complex rhythms evoking imagery of alien overseers in a world of unflinching surveillance (further proof).  Solaris has hints and touches of this mood throughout, but with a new sun-drenched sheen.  Opener "Terminus" launches into action with the sound of an airplane flyby, which when combined with the crystal blue waters on the album cover, transports the listener squarely to the tropics.  The differences between a vocal house track like "Mine to Give" and 1998's slinky "Knitevision" are stark, and my allegiances to the latter were clear.  I got the feeling that most other Photek fans felt the same as I, but mobbish dissent has a tendency to be much louder than curious enthusiasm.  Pitchfork has removed their old review of Solaris from their site, but a snippet still remains on its Metacritic page.  Read for yourself; it's not flattering.

Photek's maneuver with Solaris draws its fair share of parallels to contemporary electronic music, making me slower to judge similar movements by other artists and allowing me to listen to fresh tracks with a renewed historical perspective.  One could argue that Scuba's latest full length, Personality, is 2012's Solaris.  In both cases, the producer crafted an album that warmed up to more organic, human textures as well as potential dancefloor crossover instead of being mostly for headphone mood-setting.  Likewise, Personality has been much maligned by UK dubstep purists for being, well, a techno house album.  I think Personality is a weaker work for Scuba, but after revisiting Solaris, perhaps it just needs some time to ripen.  Will we still have mp3s in 2024?

On the other end of the spectrum, I come back to a song like "Glamourama" and think it would be a perfect B-side to a Joy Orbison and Boddika collaboration, producers of some of my favorite tracks from the past couple years.  How is it that an album as seemingly unimpactful as Solaris could have been a strong enough influence to shape sounds that would surface more than a decade later?  Due to Photek pairing up with some of the new talents, I assume there must be some reverence there, but remain skeptical of how far it goes.  The reactions to then-contemporary trends likely have had a more apparent impact.  Consider that Photek's brand of drum 'n bass was very isolated and moody compared to the majority of dnb bangers of the time, extremely similar to the atmospherics of early branching paths of dubstep like Burial.  The aggressive angle of American dubstep came through after Burial made his initial splash, actually putting the reactionary shoe on the other foot from Photek's late 90s situation.  In both cases though, the next step was to invite house influences to shed light in bleak dnb and dubstep's dark corners.

Current Photek seems to have caught up to himself and I'm excited to see what he comes out with next.  In the meantime, Solaris deserves a replay.  It's an album that, for those willing to suspend disbelief, sounds amazingly "now."  And I really mean "now" because the tides of these trends shift so quickly.  Here's to a late-2012 trip-hop revival!  You heard it here first.

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