Darkstar Foam Island Warp Records
Darkstar have never really fitted in, and there’s no doubt that they’d take that as a compliment. Stylistically, their musical output has waxed and waned – from the digital, dub-led beats of their first singles, through the ice-cool synths and gloomy pop-noir on debut album North, to the pastoral, ephemeral washed-out beauty of follow-up News From Nowhere. Probably the one constant has been a low hum of uneasiness – an unsettled aesthetic that seeps through the pores of whatever they are doing.
Foam Island sketches a clear-eyed and unflinching portrait of a nation numbed against the casual dismantling of the social contract that has kept Britain gaffer-taped together for half a century. Returning repeatedly to a series of snippets from interviews with young people in North Yorkshire, captured by the band, Foam Island is part social commentary, part musical eulogy to a country and culture hung out to dry.
Strange, then, that it contains some of their most upbeat work. Stoke The Fire nurtures a muted-Calypso beat. Go Natural feels playful and whimsical, accelerating towards a gentle cacophony of bells and steel drums. Elsewhere on the album there are soft, fuzzy, Kompakt-esque melodies, post-rock leanings, and even the odd track that invokes the earliest Darkstar material. The spoken word interviews provide the narrative, often with savage effect. A council worker, skipping jovially through an announcement about the scale of the cuts they face, sounds like she is grinning with a gun held to her head.
Foam Island is not the zeitgeist-defining masterpiece that something as ambitious and politically engaged as this could have been. There are moments when it seems to lose focus; minutes that pass without note. But Darkstar sound comfortable with themselves, and their uneasy equilibrium. You won’t hear another album like it this year, and that alone is a reason to grimly raise a glass and be thankful for a band with a disdain for smiling sweetly, and who remain on the outside looking in.