Available on: Werk Discs LP
Luke Blair’s return to the LP format was feverishly anticipated, and with good reason: his music seems predestined to inspire the devotion of solitary types the world over. The Lukid sound is almost a process, rather than a style per se: whatever sonic signatures and percussive patterns are currently doing the rounds are captured and absorbed, denatured into a murky, alienated hybrid. The results might have a certain surface unpleasantness, but are haloed with a quiet pathos that sets them apart from much club-referencing electronic music; a subtle elegiac quality that works itself gently under the skin.
Last time around, with 2010’s Chord, we were treated to a mossy synthesis of Brainfeeder-inflected hip hop and tropes drawn from dubstep’s splinter groups. The resultant album was as capable of pastoral melancholy as it was serrated nastiness, shot through with abundant bright glimmers of redemption. With Lonely At The Top, Blair claims to have expanded his vocabulary yet further, taking in the diverse musical activities which have occupied him in the intervening years: more aggressive fare on his Glum imprint, leftfield pop as half of Arclight. But while this is clearly an album with a roving aesthetic compass, it certainly doesn’t feel schizophrenic or overstretched.
Notable is a marked shift in tempo centre. Hip hop was a dominant force before, and it makes an appearance here in the frosty ‘Southpaw’ and the measured lope of ‘Laroche’ – but house and techno speeds seem to be the chief preoccupation now, along with a dusting of grime’s twitchy energy. Opener ‘Bless My Heart’, a sort of syruped disco edit, all sluggish drums and groggy vocal acrobatics, wears this influence proudly. Really, though, it’s an aberration – as usual, Blair prefers to bury his sources in layers of vitiating muck, leaving us with tantalisingly half-baked grooves – as in the excellent, ramshackle ‘Riquelme’, one of the album’s highlights.
At points, Blair clearly delights in contrast – just look at the leap from ‘Snow Theme’, one of the record’s few moments of unabashed prettiness, to ‘This Dog Can Swim’, perhaps its abrasive peak. For the most part though, this is an album of recurrent themes and techniques. Distortion, liberally applied, becomes a signifier for aggression – not only in the more percussive numbers (the title track could have been a teary-eyed electronic ballad once, but now seems throttled by the ruggedness of its own skin – a poetic fate), but also in its pensive moments: the undulating drones of ‘Tomorrow’ would be comparatively neutral, a palette cleanser perhaps, were it not for their singed edges. Discombobulated vocal samples also recur – but, far from the vertiginous vocal science deployed in so much contemporary dance music, here they’re mournful, slow moving, as if drained of vitality.
Still, for every point where this subtle obscurantism is a boon – as in ‘Manchester’, a muck-caked synth loop which grows painstakingly and understatedly into a grimy house hybrid reminiscent of Kowton – there are others where it’s a source of frustration. Lonely At The Top has ample points to recommend it: its breadth of scope tempered by its unity of feel; the finesse of its construction paired with Blair’s ear for bold sonic combinations. And yet it’s curiously difficult to love. Perhaps this album is a slow-grower of the highest degree; given Blair’s past form, that wouldn’t be a huge surprise. But after the first dozen listens, it seems undeserving of more than qualified praise.