Who listens to electronic music? According to a recent poll, the “average” consumer is most likely to be a well-educated white male aged between 18-24. If you’re in that group, congratulations, you’re in the marketers’ sweet spot, although I’d suggest in fact it’s worse to be considered in a demographic (and mercilessly exploited) than out of one. Ever heard of target practice?
This first question should be asked because electronic music can seem esoteric, and its nature (hey, there’s no lyrics!) means the material itself may tend to be more difficult to critically assess; the music is abstract enough to push any formal response into a state of fluffy contemplation.
Another aggressive-sounding question is: what use does electronic music have? Some may suggest it serves only as ambient background noise for a party or certain recreational activities which will not be described here. Such a statement is obviously prejudicial, and is in fact incorrect; people do listen to electronic music with serious intent away from the clubs. The “live” video to one of the tracks from this album, “Northern”, also demonstrates another purpose for electronic music, namely as an impressive soundtrack for fireworks, here set off in a dangerously amateur way. Those responsible evidently risked life and limb to entertain us, but such aberrant behaviour is not recommended (note: from appearance, the perpetrators are worryingly young to be messing around like this, and fall outside of the target market).
In any event, on the face of it Heartland seems like an interesting debut; Stark apparently spent four years working on many different versions of the tracks, and Civil Music were so impressed by the final “demo” that it was released without any changes, reworking or restructuring. With samples from a multitude of video games, children’s television programmes (Pokémon), Russian YouTube, radio adverts for Bollywood movies, WWE wrestling bells, Indonesian and Moroccan street markets, growing trees, retreating glaciers, Melanesian Island choirs and cheerleading championships, Stark has created a pure sonic landscape.
The use and choice of samples almost make this a world music cross-over, with a distinct sense of movement, so that the American connotation of the album title almost becomes ironic. “Ashen” opens warmly, with distant drums and chords suddenly bursting into enthusiastic focus. The steel drums of “Shelter” take us to the Caribbean and build into a big, buzzy house party. The title track also takes some time to transform from slight modernism to a rampant club pulse, but is in itself a measure of Stark’s confident proficiency.
“Parade” shifts in tone to a more brash territory, reflecting the subject matter; the cacophonous chord loop emulates a parade passing by in all its garish splendour. “Daydream” is a full-on experiment in time speeds, as we’re whisked in and out of different spatial territories.
Stark pulls and pushes the music to new places, stretching the listener’s own sense of musical depth and endurance. The album version of “Northern” is dramatically different to its incendiary video incarnation, the former an exercise in glacial cool, complete with the sounds of birds chirping slowed down to a fraction of their original speed. “Near Dawn” follows with a thumping sense of movement through a jungle, finishing in a climax of intense modernism. Closer “Now” is a dramatic trip around the world with big major chord progressions eventually fading into the suburban civilization of air-conditioned white noise. Imaginative, ambitious and with epic scale, Heartland has moments of thrill and intrigue making this an engaging, challenging debut.