Second Storey: Margosa Heights

[7 July 2013]

By Al Kennedy

Alec Storey’s (Second Storey) debut release, Margosa Heights, on arguably this year’s breakthrough UK label—the Rob Booth-curated, Fabric in-house label Houndstooth—is a deep journey into a re-imagined future, where bass music and electronica meet to form something much more than the sum of its parts.

Margosa Heights is a gloomy steampunk version of the electronic music Warp Records was peddling in the early ‘90s under the label’s Artificial Intelligence banner. Yet instead of taking its influences from the warm fuzzy glow of post-rave culture and the druggy hedonism that ecstasy provided when it first landed on British shores, the EP is instead informed by the more nocturnal themes associated with human nature: corruption, repression and an inherent fear of advanced/alien technology.

Whereas his music under the Al Tourette’s moniker was a swampy yet fun take on dancefloor bass techno at a time when his long time collaborators Bloc were turning heads on the UK festival scene, and dubstep was ruling the roost as a credible form of underground UK dance music (a period that saw the artist find favour with Mary Anne Hobbs when she was in charge of the seminal BBC Radio 1 Experimental Show as well as important UK labels such as Apple Pops, Aus Music, Baselogic and Hypercolour offshoot Sneaker Social Club) his rebirth as Second Storey fully embraces the dark, detailed aesthetic that the Houndstooth label is fashioning for itself as we speak.

The EP kicks things off with the dense “Arpy Gables” which, after a long BBC Radiophonic Workshop-inspired intro, reveals itself to be a bastardized morphing of 2-step garage and Flying Lotus-inspired wonk. Skippy, layered rhythms—that on occasion fall from the grid—combine with analogue edged sound effects; subdued cannon blasts; the implied arpeggiated synth lines of the title; deep, droney sub bass pressure and high pitched melodic elements that dip and dive out of focus, ensuring that multiple listens are required to take in the full mastery of detail that Storey has imbued his tracks with. The track is definitely not an exercise of restraint which, in a day and age that seems to revel in minimalism, makes the whole thing fresh and exciting without resorting to pandering to the lowest common denominator.

“Still Seas/Just Mortal” continues where “Arpy Gables” left off—surging, deep and concentrated, yet uncluttered, sci-fi atmospherics combining with speedy, swung half-step garage rhythms and experimental neurofunk bass modulations. It is the stand out track of the EP, harboring an upfront, yet progressive, techno-laced aggressive edge with both its drum and synth work. It is hallucinogenic, spacey and weird, hiding loads of strange sonic anomalies and sound effects for listeners to delight in time and time again.

The titular “Margosa Heights” tones down the controlled feeling of menace that lurks just out of sight under the sea of murky atmospherics that proceeded it, settling down into a languid 120bpm bounce of muffled kicks, flammed wooden blocks, strange, flappy bass tones and emotive harmonic and melodic work that all somehow mesh together to form the most “musical” moments on the EP.

Bringing the tempo down even further is the EP closer “Hebridean Mind Tours”, an amalgamation of techno and experimental hip hop centering around the loop manipulation techniques made famous by the minimal techno scene of the mid-2000s. It revels in the build-up and release of tension, subtlety shifting the mood and perspective of the listener throughout the track, in the process showing the daring and confidence that Storey has obviously grown into in the period leading up to his signing to Houndstooth.

All things said, this EP is not going to set dancefloors around the world on fire, but then I am guessing that was never the intention. Its running length in effect makes this EP a mini album, with its cogent, focused sound palette indicating the composer’s desire to perhaps move into the world of sound tracking in the future. Dare I say it, but I consider this release almost as a concept EP: the tracks fade into each other like a classic prog-rock album from the ‘70s, making the whole listening experience immersive and exciting in equal measures, and—as already mentioned—primed for repeat listens. I am pretty sure Second Storey will make a full album, and when he does I will be waiting in the wings with glee. Margosa Heights is well-thought out and executed as well as being daring but without pushing the boundaries of genre so far as to alienate its potential audience. It is a fine way to relaunch a musical career that was perhaps hampered in the past by expectations of a certain type of sound. Welcome to the Houndstooth party Mr. Tourettes. Long may your partnership prosper.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/172925-second-storey-margosa-heights/