Misfit City - Seethrough

Transparent neither in style nor intent, Darkroom's second album is demanding, mysterious; trickily opaque. Not an unfamiliar position for this most obscure, obscured and inexplicable of ambient/illbient groups.

The billowing instrumentals of Darkroom's first album, 'Daylight', made their points obliquely through a spray of trip-hop grace, thick detail and industrial derangement. And about half of 'Seethrough' follows a similar path - baleful/beautiful semi-improvised noisescapes of layered electronics, angrily stewing loop guitar and naked, caress-through-to-howl voice. The glutinous, dubbed-up 'Galaxy Craze' has resident synth necromancer Os firing off ratlike background rattles and spectral drum'n'bass rhythm triggers - a threatening arrhythmic undulation with Tim Bowness' minimal, wraithlike subway singing menaced by fretless-bass probing like a giant animal's tongue.

In contrast to the aviary-heat of Michael Bearpark's textured guitar, old-school '80s synthpop riffs underpin 'Charisma Carpenter'. These OMD tinklings are an unexpectedly cheerful counterpart to Tim's lustrous, vaporous vocal chanting - always the most bizarre aspect of Darkroom's music. Singing mere tumbling vowels or sounds on the edge of becoming words, he delivers them with an eerily precise, chilly diction: like droplets of lovesong, freezing to alien sleet as soon as they leave his mouth.

Only 'Kaylenz', though, hints at the shocking intensity of Darkroom on full, live, improvising intensity. Fourteen sprawling, disorientating minutes with the tension between the celestial and the pestilential growing ever more violent. Electronica loops shade upwards into alarm, distorted hospital bells shrill, and the country-toned guitar tang gives way to sharp buzz-edged swarming. The vocals, too, travel from weary, loving sorrow to a hysterical pitch of recriminations and a dash of lyrical perversity. Just before 'Kaylenz' steps up - or breaks down - into a chaotic torrent of frighteningly emotional randomness, we hear Tim singing in a lost corner of the studio. A bored, beautiful detached whisper of "you again, you again - / who's to blame, if it's all the same?"

Which brings us to the wild card of 'Seethrough' - presenting Darkroom's songwriting side, sketching withering surreal portraits of disenchantment and alienation helped along by spacey glissandos of electric slide guitar. They've dabbled in words before (on the drum'n'bass/Fripp & Eno soundclash of the 'Carpetworld' single) but here it's more leisurely, more controlled, more disturbing. In some ways extending Tim's work on the cryptic dark-city musings of No-Man's 'Wild Opera', in others it reflects the burnt-out, amoral contemplations of Tricky's surreal, spliff-fuelled 'Maxinquaye'. Although if so, this is Tricky as played by Alec Guinness, dropping casual, vinegar-dry references to both Def Leppard and Janet Frame while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique unhindered by the flapping of library cards. On the bobbing Morricone-meets-Orb dub of 'King Of The Cowboy Singers', Tim's guarded, musical speaking voice recites both nonsense and significance to the beat - "trying to find a new life in an old boot, /
walking to the new place in your old suit - / the king of the cowboy singers, / the toast of the Old School dinners..." The roiling, improvised star-stuff that usually pools out of Darkroom's speakers is swapped for Dada-tinged narratives of shifting identities and habits, of introverted, stiffly English insanity and implosions of starched order.

But if Darkroom are no longer playing live from the surface of the sun, they've only retreated as far as a ski-lodge on Mercury. The glimpses of sky are always a bright merciless glare, the ground always dry dust, the scenery just a few steps away from white-out. Surly and blinded, 'Bludgeon Riffola' surfaces through a swimming of harness bells as a filthy punk-blues fed through post-rock and tracer-paths of needling synth-noise, Tim's petulant vocals rope-swung and curdled with distortion. And the album's masterpiece - the ten-minute stretch of 'Bottleneck' - is blindingly white and exposed; a sinister mixture of Aphew Twin and Bill Frisell. Sparse, desolate slide guitar is chewed at by Os' echoing dead-sea-surf static and smeared brass textures. Tim's lonesome vocal (once it finally arrives) rides a stately dance of plucked orchestra strings, drawing out the shapes of a puzzle of betrayal and disgust. The charges are clear - "You never really loved your wife... / you never really knew your boys... / you never even liked the girl you said had claimed your heart - restart, restart." But the story's obscured: gaps between snapshots swallow it up. The figure of a man is reduced to a hat, a cigarette; an unfinished meal; an absence.

Then again, Darkroom aren't here to provide clarity. 'Seethrough' itself seals the album in a light and feverish running pulse, frosted by far-off gilded sprays of quiet prog rock guitar. It's tremulously sweet and frantic - trance-techno that's neurotic rather than narcotic - and with a blurred, vocoder-ed vocal that queries the giddy transcendence of the music. "Too much misunderstanding; too much, too little love. / Too much to keep your hand in, too much to float above." Dancing lightly on its feet, it moves with the crowd only to slip away quietly as the dreams evaporate. "Too much deliberation, too much you want to be. / Too much anticipation, too much you'll never see - see through, seethrough."

Blink, and it's gone. Darkroom tease us with clarity, but lead us to a vanishing in the end.

Dann Chinn

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