Nick Harriman and Alfie Granger-Howell have been making music together since they met in sixth form in the 2000s. Dusky however was not born until 2011, with the release of Stick By This, a tech house record that touched on classical, soul, jazz, liquid and dub across its 14 tracks. Since its release the duo have continued to release EPs on a regular basis, set up their own record label (17 Steps), enjoyed critical and popular praise, and signed to a major label. Despite these successes it has been five years since their debut and as their stock as a production duo has risen, so have expectations for this record.
Even after the record was announced in April, it has been another five month wait for the full LP. On finally pressing play on Outer, “All We Ever Need” is a slow building intro that never quite crescendos; its smooth synth lines and earnest vocals almost toy with the listener. This is a mark of the maturity and confidence shown on the record, showing restraint not to delve straight into a club record, and an early sign of the type of the record they want to create. Whilst their EPs across the past five years have mainly focused on the warehouses and post-2:00 AM vibes where they have built their following, much like and arguably even more so than their debut, Outer’s tracks have traditional a pop/rock song arrangement and the album follows suit. Indeed, Dusky have created a very complete record, well-paced and structured. Whilst their first album embraced so many influences, it was a little sprawling and struggled for identity and focus in parts. Outer rarely suffers the same fate.
Much of the record is informed by the hedonistic mix of rich harmonies and deep house melodies set against the dense metallic drum patterns of techno. From the propulsive “Tiers” to the “Birds of Prey” morphing “Songs of Phrase” and the menacing “Runny Nose”, there is much for their core fans to enjoy. The duo are happy to embrace their influences head on and draw on them, from the nostalgic sounds of the spacey, Baleriac lead single “Ingrid Is a Hybrid” to the spoken word intro to “Runny Nose”.
This isn’t to say Dusky have abandoned their experimental streak, as the lads continue to embrace a broad range of sounds across the record. There are nods to electronic music’s major movements in the UK over the past few decades: dubstep and grime. The crushing snaps of the drums on “Sort It Out Sharon” in particular, are enough to make grime godfather Wiley sound at home, like a tech house “Feed Em to the Lions”. Having released their debut on Ajunadeep, there are also signs of the melodic tendencies of their former label bosses. The ethereal “Marble” is arguably the finest example with its Bon-Iver-esque swirling synths, affecting piano chords and vocals courtesy of Granger-Howell grounding the track as a moment of calm, setting the tone for the understated euphoria of “Ingrid Is a Hybrid” which follows.
The deep basslines of “Long Wait” are offset by an agitated melody and indie-influenced vocals of Solomon Grey, a seemingly bizarre mix when written down, but it works. They even collaborate with Gary Numan on “Swansea”. The album as a whole is a fantastically original piece of work, pulling together these diverse contributions into one cohesive artistic statement without ever seeming forced or disingenuous. If anything, the album is least impressive where the duo don’t push their sonic boundaries as much (“Trough”). The band leave their most challenging and progressive moment until last. “Spruce”, which features Pedestrian, is as much a pop soul song as it is house or electronica, and across the course of the near six-and-a-half minute running time it never overreaches, coming across as almost Massive-Attack-esque in the process.
The duo have built a strong reputation in the burgeoning house scene and this record only looks likely to cement this position. However they have also broadened their reach, producing credible dance music with real crossover potential. Across the course of Outer, Harriman and Granger-Howell transport the listener through time and genres with ease and show real creative vision. They haven’t simply created a dance music album, they have created something more adventurous, taking full advantage of the LP format and in the process have released not just one of the best house but best records of any genre of the year so far.