Misfit City - Fallout 1

Maybe it's the dispiriting "not on Warp Records or Rephlex" syndrome. Maybe it's the frustration of bouncing off 'The Wire's defense radar, or maybe it's simply the difficulties of working in abstract electronica; but the mightily amorphous Darkroom seem to have been in retreat in recent years. Strategic retreat, that is, rather than slinking off to lick their wounded diodes. They're still active, particularly in their native Cambridge - haunting basements, galleries and art cinemas when they can, recording hours and hours of live material.

Still more or less unknown, they've been making the most of this anonymity to continue to explore their unsettling take on ambient music, unencumbered by the demands of the more familiar electronica clubs or by any micro-cultures other than their own. The 'Fallout' trilogy (of which this is the first installment) is the result. Unadulterated Darkroom live and in the raw, with the song experiments and the more disciplined aspects of their last album 'Seethrough' abandoned in order for the group to embrace more of the chaotic, massy, polytextural wanderings that they touched on in their 'Daylight' debut.

The tracks on 'Fallout One' are functionally numbered, 'One' to 'Seven'. Not one of them is graced with a name or clue of any kind - no sine-wave surfing, no snippets of French or intimations of disturbance, no jokes, not even any nods to Darkroom's old Samuel Beckett fetish. Any associations which you make are entirely your own. And Darkroom don't guide. They drift through their music with a mixture of utter authority and confusing haphazardness, stirring ideas in and spinning them out. You can't place yourself with this music - merely live with it.

'Fallout One' also emphasises an increasing musical dominance by Os, the synthesist corner of the Darkroom triangle. Fresh from his solo adventures outside Darkroom in Carbon Boy, Os brings in the glut of shortwave radio voices from that project, disrupts Darkroom's light-footed beats into free-jazz stumbles, and regularly distorts and destroys any settled landscapes that the group have settled on with his relentless mutations of dense electronics. Michael Bearpark, lurking in the background, concentrates on turning his guitar into a slowhand blur of inscrutable forbidding noise and building up aquamarine loops like a coldly psychotic take on Michael Brook.

Most displaced now is abstract singer Tim Bowness. Whenever his vocals appear, they're as shocked, drowning, incoherent whoops and keens; always half-submerged in the swirl of choking ambience and psychedelic space echo that his collaborators are cooking up. As ever, the effect is similar to the contorted vocal tapestries of Tim Buckley's 'Starsailor', but this time being gradually sucked down a black hole, protesting all the way.

Caught as live as this, Darkroom's music is more disorientating and disturbing than it's ever been before on album. Though always too lushly endowed with timbre and detail to be unrelentingly hostile, it offers little in the way of chill-out calm or methodical reassurance. Even the gentler tracks such as 'Three' or 'Four' regularly see Darkroom's more pastoral landscapes bent out of shape - a mantric Bowness chant of "say" will be overcome by data squirts and snippets of Gregorian chant; a hum of guitar will be scratched over by a violently juddering, reedy electronic screech; clicking needles will have a strange banana-boat yodel stretched across them. And throughout, Os' sculpting of the sounds induces sonic meltdown. Hiccups of sounds, whale song, a mutilated loop of geothermal Mellotron or a dignified broadcaster's voice will all be sucked up, shredded and blown out, or brought round and round like a small corpse flattened onto a moving tyre.

Darkroom offer nothing easy in their collision of the beautiful, the horror-inducing and the plain distorted. 'Fallout One' is music for dissolving cities - a coolheaded embracing of confusion.

Dann Chinn

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