Andy Stott took his time getting here. The Manchester producer spent a good part of the last decade turning out solid tracks under his own name and under the alias Andrea. Though he always returned to dub techno, he flirted with a range of genres, from juke to house to dubstep, and some of his music was very good. But Stott never quite zeroed in on a unique voice. That changed in 2011 with the release of two short albums, Passed Me By and We Stay Together. Stott left behind the quicker tempos of dance proper, and slowing down allowed him to sink deeper into his music, where he found a new world of atmosphere and texture. Passed and Stay were heavy records that highlighted something new about the expressive power of bass. Dub techno, stretching back to its origins with the early-1990s Berlin project Basic Channel, tends to view the low end as a mysterious black sludge. Where bass in Skrillex-style EDM is a precision weapon, with drops punctuating the tracks and jacking up the mood in an instant, the bottom octave in dub techno is more of an enveloping presence. It's murkier, more oppressive, colder, something you wade through and push against. Which is why the inertia of the relentless 4/4 beat signifies energy whatever the tempo.
On his two 2011 releases, Stott found an unusual musicality in deep, foreboding bass. His music throbbed with the sooty remnants of industry and had obvious appeal for those interested in dark ambiance of any stripe; its all-consuming nature gave him a new audience beyond the realm of dance music. With his new album, Luxury Problems, he adds a few more wrinkles, and his music has become simultaneously more complex and more accessible. Working with operatically trained vocalist Alison Skidmore (Stott met her as a student when she taught him piano), he's humanized his sound, made it more beautiful and richer on the surface while further accentuating its dark heart. The new dynamic leads to another big leap forward for the producer.
Skidmore's voice is a versatile instrument in its own right, but Stott's looping and processing gives it even more flexibility. Though Luxury Problems has a consistent overall mood, the feel and structure of the individual tracks vary quite a bit, and the pieces featuring Skidmore find her singing pulled into all kinds of interesting shapes. The album opens with her in her most glassy and ethereal, as repetitions of her singing a single word, "touch," float through space like soap bubbles. The "ch" phoneme is looped and becomes the hi-hat on the track, and gradually the sounds assemble themselves into a ghosted version of a conventional dance rhythm. But when Stott's machine bass pulse enters just under halfway through, we realize we're in for a world of serious contrasts: "Numb" is delicate and gorgeous but has an undercurrent of menace, and the tension between these qualities is the record's essence.
If "Numb" is Skidmore at her most spectral, "Hatch the Plan" finds her sounding more grounded, almost in the mode of a singer-songwriter. The choral-like layering on "Plan" brings to mind School of Seven Bells and even Throwing Muses. But it's the longest track on the record and is purely instrumental-- mostly a deeply unsettling mix of bass churn and machine noises-- for its first two minutes. That it moves from pure soundscape to something close to a proper song is further evidence of Stott's confidence; none of these tracks feel like they have to be any one thing, they're always growing and changing and defying expectations.
"Lost and Found" has a similarly melodic approach, unspooling in a Middle Eastern mode and bringing to mind Dead Can Dance at their most subtle. We can hear Stott drawing lines between 4AD-style gothic new wave and dub techno, building bridges between sounds and ideas based on his understanding of the elements and moods that connect them. Elsewhere, on "Expecting", he goes further into abstraction, constructing an intensely dark and ominous atmosphere that bring to mind the ice-cold isolationist drone of Thomas Köner. The excavation of electronic music history takes a more unusual turn on "Up the Box", which plays with a snippet of what sounds like the "Amen" break. But the familiar splash of jungle snares and cymbals is transformed by Stott into something of his own own, as he mixes the tricky rhythms with his now undeniable bass signature, a groaning maw flecked with distortion that feels like it's rattling everything within earshot. Stott has a rare ability to pull sounds from different places and fit them into his album conception.
Two records from the past offer antecedents for Stott's breakthrough: Luomo's Vocalcity and Burial's Untrue. It's not that Luxury Problems sounds like either of these releases-- the mood and textures are vastly different in each case. But there's a spiritual connection between the three, all of which found producers working within the confines of a specific genre of electronic music discovering a way to turn their music inside and out and broaden its appeal through the manipulated voice. But if Vocalcity was a digital refraction of house music and Untrue took early UK dubstep as a jumping-off point to express post-club emptiness and yearning, Luxury Problems is more internally focused, an evocative and immersive soundtrack for a sustained look within. It's the headphones album of the year from a producer with a long history who has come into his own.