When an artist goes back to their roots, it usually means they’re plotting some kind of formal exercise, retreading through an existing genre and subjecting listeners to a treatise on the purity of a field they’ve decided to become a tourist in. When acclaimed sub-bass advocate and creaky techno producer Andy Stott took an opportunity to glance in the rearview, he pulled out his old piano teacher Alison Skidmore and processed her voice through his factory of effects, producing something unfamiliar, alien, and thrillingly unconventional for his newest LP, Luxury Problems.
Skidmore, also trained as an opera singer, is easily the element that most stands out on Luxury Problems, which otherwise seems to be a continuation of the experimentation and diversity found on Stott’s two EPs from 2011, We Stay Together and Passed Me By (the latter of which was PopMatters’ top electronic album last year). On those EPs, Stott garnered an impressive amount of might and traction by slowing his BPMs below the three digit mark, sloth-like in the realm of dance music, and adding heavy sludge to the mix, complimenting the man’s patented bass density by shrouding it in dark, often careworn hues.
Luxury Problems shows no want for reclaiming territory on the dancefloor; it’s perfectly happy lurking in the shadows like its predecessor companion EPs. But the inherent darkness of Stott’s carious and degraded mixes, souped up in reverberating drone and pointillized by granular detail, is here juxtaposed against the often sweet, sometimes harrowing voice of his one-time mentor. Skidmore’s voice seems to be at times lifting, but it is quickly weighted down by the gravity of Stott’s murky pinion and submitted to that bass density as if some kind of virginal sacrifice.
This light-dark/male-female dichotomy is by no means a new formula. When Luxury Problems allows its percussive patterns to unfog enough to reveal the tactile instruments beneath, it recalls trip hop (“Luxury Problems), and even at its most amorphous (“Hatch the Plan”) the album has spiritual brethren in the textural loops of Seefeel and their frequent collaborator Mark Van Hoen. However, Stott’s impressionistic daubs are flavored with their own personality and bathed in a specific type of timbral grime that makes it uniquely esoteric and defiant of easy categorization-by-referent-proxy. The juxtaposition of Stott and Skidmore is not so much a relationship of constant tension and conflict as it is a dialogue of mutual understanding, the yin discovering its yang and vice versa. It’s amazing that Stott was able to portray this type of communication when Skidmore wasn’t even in the same room as him when she recorded the vocals. It’s even more amazing that he’s able to do this by creating a total atmospheric abyss, a dystopia poised as the excrement of heaven or a hellscape whose suffering is immeasurably beautiful.
The album begins on the word “Touch”, one of the only discernible lyrics on the album. It’s sung by Skidmore solo, but at the first utterance she’s already surrounded by effects, echoes and harmonies, signing in tandem with herself. As Skidmore aches for connection, specifically a connection associated with the sensation of feel, the invisible producer proffers this, but disguises his presence. The album that follows will indeed be an album of sensation and feeling, a lush emotional experience in both the bass and treble registers. Yet, the aforementioned track is titled “Numb” and it’s not until a few minutes into the track that you realize why, as Stott’s pendulum-thud kicks attempts to jackhammer the voice’s tenderness into the molten earth below it. It’s only by molding to the rhythm, accepting the grind on its terms, that the vocal track transforms from torture porn into a forlorn elegy. In essence, Skidmore’s warmth not only humanizes Stott, but Stott’s chilly cache of entropic beats and cauterized synths rescue the voice from diffusing into ether as well.
It’s a stunning interplay, but even without the vocals this would be the ultimate Stott album. Never before has the producer been as sharp (or as murky) at the boards as he is here, seamlessly tuning long-winded drones with slavedriver clangs into hypnotic locked grooves. “Up the Box” is Dramamine jungle, a chopped amen break contorted and convalesced into odd patterns at a speed that allows one to see the folds in the joints. But it only gets there after three minutes of ritualistic drum circle pounding. The title track, easily the most groove-oriented thing here, is constantly undercut by what sounds like an interrupting music box being turned on way above the mix. It’s a moment where the mixture of the otherworldly and the concrète shouldn’t work together, but do.
“Luxury Problems” seems to be a bastardization of the popular hashtag #firstworldproblems, which is often used as a comical self-aware whine about the pitfalls of privilege. With its majestic sweep and operatic vocals, Stott’s newest album sounds at times like a dead serious transcription of elegance corrupted (though not depreciated) by the elements, a Life After People glimpse at the spectral imprint of late capitalist values. Perhaps this is reading too far into the implications of that title, but Luxury Problems is exactly that type of abstract text, one with enough depth to find what one is looking for within it. Perhaps, the only thing it doesn’t present is luxury solutions. Even at its most gaseous, it’s fixed, deterministic, morbid, doomed, eschatological, scatological, and gorgeous.