Hard Islands is perplexing and sharp, but you're lying if you told your friends this is an "album".
Instead of issuing a proper follow-up full-length to his electronic psyche opus Drowning in a Sea of Love, producer Nathan Fake rests in the comfortable middle for Hard Islands, a thirty-some minute "mini album" of volatile techno that mirrors his earlier works while driving them into an often likable and sinister direction. This "abbreviated manifesto logic" that suffices in lieu of an LP is contagious over at the Border Community headquarters. Label chieftain and producer/DJ James Holden took that road not long ago for his 2006 The Idiots Are Winning mini-album, a much closer cousin to Hard Islands than Drowning. In fact, Hard Islands is worlds apart from the Boards of Canada/shoegaze electronica that characterizes Drowning in a Sea of Love, and as a result of this playing more like a primer rather than an actual LP, anything resembling a strong cohesive thread is awfully difficult to latch onto here.
Nathan Fake's 2003 debut Border Community single, "Outhouse", amassed a lot of attention for its ultra-melodic, streaking synths and mixed-bag percussion sounds. Shortly afterward, a gorgeous, chimes-ridden remix of Fake's "The Sky Was Pink" followed, contributed by James Holden, and it was also heavily championed by headliner house and techno DJs across the globe. Both cuts, as well as his Watlington Street EP, represent a more aggressive sound than that which Fake sought out for his Drowning in a Sea of Love full-length (its wealth of rather tender computer-built textures and faux guitar fuzz are represented more clearly on "The Sky Was Pink" original take, later an album track), but they'll rightfully be regarded as classic techno records, each brimming with sentimental, soaring chord progressions and rounded bass gurgles. Hard Islands is a look back at the sun-struck techno at the center of these early singles -- the tracks that landed the 25-year-old Norfolk, UK native on much-acclaimed DJ set lists before his name nestled beside indie rock's elite. Fake has smeared the earlier engine's gears with a thick layer of black grease for Hard Islands, often guiding his new tracks into a darker, frazzled realm that don't quite connect with one another the way his work does on Drowning.
Nathan Fake has never been one to stick to a particular percussive pattern for too long of a time, often gumming the works with Warp Records-type glitchy interruption and unpredictable tempo bumps. Hard Islands' fascinating closer "Fentiger" -- with jumpy 808 kicks softened only by a brief spell of lush, Drowning-type haze -- flirts with fully illustrating this trait, but opener "The Turtle" harbors it in spades. Fake deals an almost frustrating amount of disorder in his first track. The hammering synths and perpetual hiss toward the final moments of "The Turtle" are a well-constructed indicator that this record will offer none of the solace found in 2006's dense washes of "Grandfathered" or "You Are Here" on the artist's long-playing debut. "The Turtle" is playful, but it skulks into a place that forbids such tomfoolery, and if it had indeed been around when Fake was assembling Drowning (its inclusion in a 2006-era laptop set for Fake's BBC Essential Mix with James Holden indicates this is a possibility), one wonders where it could've nabbed a spot in that album's tracklist. Four minutes into the tension that drives Hard Islands, Drowning In a Sea of Love feels solar systems away, as if it had seen release ten summers ago, not four.
Darker yet but more cohesive, "Narrier" nears the cavernous exercises that are barely confined on Schöne Neue Extrawelt, the late 2008 masterwork crafted by like-minded German tech house producers (and BC alumni) Extrawelt. Shrill, horror-film glass shards are nudged along "Narrier"'s monotonous beats and gritty underbelly, and repeat listens prove disturbing but more compelling, with new micro-sized bits surfacing again and again. Longer-running piece "Castle Rising" stirs at first in a manner similar to "Outhouse", but peaks in a manic sprawl of looped, grinding laser-tones that cripple any sense of stability established at the onset. It's one of Nathan Fake's most interesting productions -- multicolored and spiraling with flailing percussion. This can be said about all of Hard Islands, other than the fact that calling this collection an "album" is a bit of a misnomer.
Nathan Fake's Drowning in a Sea of Love progresses like a photo album of creased, discolored portraits. Its segments are distinctively their own, but retain close relationships in structure and their steadily dissolving tones. The album seems to have been arranged to evoke such a feeling; one can pick up on Fake's intention to generate wonder and heightened engagement in each listen. Even as rich and texturally intricate as Hard Islands gets, it's difficult to detect whether cohesion was such a big priority this time around. A few of the Hard productions are among Fake's finest to date, but this release -- its short running time aside -- works primarily on a collection basis, as if it were two separate EPs gathered for one release and nothing more than that.