There’s a couple thousand dubstep DJs out there who could have named themselves Starkey and meant it. Luckily, Philadelphia’s Paul J Geissinger, who was the one who adopted the moniker, is a somewhat inappropriate fit for a name suggesting starkness as a defining characteristic. His mixes are neither straightforward nor extreme in the Borgore vein, nor are they concise or austere in ways that define the Hotflush crew.
Starkey’s debut full length player on Planet Mu, Ephemeral Exhibits, was a hit among fans and critics alike. While it certainly delivered the Richter-scaled goods, particularly on lurching masculine stomps like “Pictures” and “Gutter Music” (which featured the magnificent grime MC Durrty Goodz), it also revealed a multilayered compositional complexity suggesting that Starkey’s genre coinage “Street Bass” was not just a reference to the phallus, but also a proposal that street music/bass music can also have a brain, a heart, and yes, a soul.
If Ephemeral Exhibits was the alpha male document to win the attention of Croydon crowd on the other side of the pond, Starkey’s follow-up Ear Drums and Black Holes is a more androgynous, glam, and pop affair. Even the name suggests orifices, though this too could be another linguistic ruse. Talk of drums seems like a diversion since percussion plays second hand to the mammoth synths rolling throughout this piece. Just as well, the space articulated in the album title is almost non-existent; all dubby echo chambers have been squeezed out by the plump and swollen electro-bass dominating the available air.
Starkey is at his best when he abandons all the self-imposed limitations of a scene that at times seems to strive for provincialism. Starkey imagines himself as the contemporary of Drake and The Dream at points on Ear Drums and Black Holes, even going so far as to apply liberal amounts of auto-tune on tracks like the glorious “Alienstyles” and the unique “Spacecraft”, where Geissinger, doing an eccentric take on R. Kelly, serenades a would-be paramour to escape with him on a the aforementioned air ship.
Perhaps the weirdest track on the album, “Spacecraft” conjures the spirit of prog and all its UFO-adorned LP jackets through a kind of weird power play between the sensual and the aggressive, cutting cinematically back and forth between the red lamp lit sleeping quarters on deck and the firey explosions of the rocket boosters below preparing for liftoff. Break downs, false endings, explosive returns, and such render a peculiar centerpiece, though it must be noted that the album is full of these odd twists and turns.
In fact, much of Ear Drums and Black Holes seems an inconsistent hodgepodge of styles at first, but there’s a running consistency in both the chromatic palette and the chrome-plated exterior of the instrumentation that makes these sometimes disparate tunes seem like they all fell off the same family tree. Still, it’s what Starkey does with these synths, which often achieve a grandeur worthy of M83, that impresses; the wild effects, dramatic chord changes, epileptic syncopations, subtle coatings of distorted vibrato, et al.
The least successful variants on the album are the two tracks with guest vocals by Texan rapper Cerebral Vortex. On “Murderous Words”, Cerebral Vortex’s southern drawl is confident and calm, while Starkey’s music is paranoid and anxious. It’s a discordant pairing overall, which is not to mention the fact that Starkey seems to have stepped down his productions on these tracks to accommodate the lyrics. One would at least expect better rhymes, wordplay, or flow from something so deliberate, but the two Cerebral Vortex tracks fall flat in terms of both production intensity and lyrical tenacity.
“Numb”, however, is a spot-on execution and an inventive hip-hop production. The opposite of “Murderous Words” in a way, Starkey brews up lazy synths couched in an ethereal twilight haze of street lamp light pollution and urban high rise twinkle while PMoney (another name from the grime game) delivers a slightly manic yet Boy in Da Corner style introspective verse taking place at 4AM during a bout of writer’s block. “I look strong on the outside, but inside the mind I’m a soldier that’s limping”, PMoney states, further explaining that the only escape from these spiritual wounds is to “plug in my headphones and zone out to the kick of the drum”.
It’s easy to imagine many doing just that with this very album. Ear Drums and Black Holes offers many a majestic moment, the peak being the track immediately following “Numb”. “Stars”, sung by the virtually unknown but sirenic Anneka (she’s done some work with Vex’d, Milanese, and Ital Tek), is technopop made in heaven. Anneka’s coos may be the element that could potentially lure in fans from outside of the scene, but its Starkey’s bizarrely phased cymbals, his Morse code riddim that sounds like a signal struggling to get through, his atonal R2D2 squeals, and the way he almost seems to fumble into an epic conclusion in what remains a crushingly brief three minutes that makes the song one for the ages. It proves that Starkey, though comfortable just about anywhere, transcends scenic boundaries, which is good since he doesn’t seem too concerned about them, anyway.