The evocative, monochrome artwork that adorns every Andy Stott release for Modern Love is like a mirror for the stripped-down, minimalist brand of dance music that the Manchester-based producer distills. However, this only tells a part of the story of an artist in constant evolution, drawing together strands of music both dance floor-orientated and otherwise to create his own vision of electronica. 2012’s Luxury Problems felt like a conclusion, or at least a crystallization, of all the influences that had fueled Andy Stott, from Joy Division to dubstep, resulting in a perfectly-formed capsule of Northern English dance, and left us grateful listeners wondering where he could go next.
As it turns out, “next” means a return to basics, and Faith in Strangers retains little ofLuxury Problems’ hermetic universe, instead sees Stott reaching out and grabbing, almost hungrily, a wealth of sounds and styles. There is, however, one constant, namely the shape-shifting vocals of Alison Skidmore, Stott’s former piano teacher, who featured already on Luxury Problems. If on that album she was, consistent with Modern Love’s “hauntological” aesthetic (see Demdike Stare), a ghostly, elusive presence, on Faith in Strangers she often stands front and centre, with Stott contorting his music around her crystalline words and eructations.
This eclecticism delivers mixed results. Luxury Problems showcased Stott’s remarkable talent for crafting infectious, hypnotic rhythms: snaky, tremulous beats that owed in part as much to the unflinching repetition of the Durutti Column or Joy Division as they did to dubstep or techno. Here, the rhythm is stripped away on numerous tracks in favour of swathes of ambience and industrial drone textures. It certainly makes for a more expansive work, but loses some of the immediacy that defined Stott’s music as recently as on Drop the Vowels, released earlier this year in tandem with Miles Whittaker from Demdike Stare (as Millie & Andrea). The rhythmic backdrop on tracks like “On Oath” and “Science and Industry” are spindly and minimal in the way Suicide’s primitive drum machines were, and inevitably dominated by the combinations of synths and Skidmore’s Beth Gibbons-like voice. Elsewhere, the title track feels beamed out of the mid-1990s, Stott’s avowed admiration for Cocteau Twins shining through and again driven by the vocals, even if these are as wispy as mist.
The shift in focus can leave a seasoned Stott fan bemused, but you have to salute the man’s creativity and versatility. On a number of occasions, he expertly draws a line between old and new styles. Tracks like “Violence” (a masterpiece) and “How It Was” evoke memories of trip-hop acts like Massive Attack and more recent electro-dance contortionists such as Actress or Burial. “Violence” is simply incredible, with cavernous passages of baleful silence punctuated only by menacing electro blurts and Skidmore’s isolated moaning. When the beats and bass kick in, they go straight for the guts with the kind of shuddering force you’d hear at a Raime or King Midas Sound gig. The tempo is reduced to almost overwhelming levels, as saturated low-end tumbles and crumbles forward unrelentingly. There’s little doubt “Violence” and the more industrial-sounding “No Surrender” will form the centrepiece of any forthcoming Andy Stott live set, although, if Faith in Strangers proves anything, it’s that predicting what the man will do next is impossible.