art department

EP Review: Crystalised - Art Department Presents Martina Topley Bird feat. Mark Lanegan & Warpaint

On first listen this new single from Art Department blew my mind. The duo are better known for their dark techno production, and to a certain extent that is audible here, but the main radio edit suggests they could be priming themselves up for some cross-over production action.

This EP is based around a cover version of The xx's beautiful but somewhat over-familiar "Crystalised". Rather than just remix the original though Art Department have some serious talent involved to re-imagine it. The single edit is this re-imagininng in its most original form - a loose and fuzzy track with vocals from Martina Topley Bird and Mark Lanegan.

The vocals feel sultry and bluesy were the originals were nervous and exposed - it sounds like you'd expect The xx to sound once they've played this song on tour for another 25-years, in a good way, like Fleetwood Mac's tense over-familiarity simmering over into the music. Topping it off is some typically moody instrumentation from Warpaint. Something about their sound always feels like it deserves to be heard drenched in the pissing rain with boots full of mud. This is no different. It reeks of bitterness. In a good way.

Crystalised - Art Department Presents Martina Topley Bird feat. Mark Lanegan & Warpaint

Alongside this stark reimagining are five dance remixes and following in such footsteps it is inevitable that none of them are quite as exciting... It would have been much more interesting if Art Department had instead included an extended version of that radio edit.

Art Department themselves provide two mixes - a Director's Cut Signature and Director's Cut Unmarked Dub. The former sounds pretty much like you would expect a tech-house version of "Crystalised" to sound - its swirling FX and synthesised take on the original's delicate melody is impressive, yet it still feels a little overly plastic. The dub is similar but light on vocals, replacing them with a gradual build that combined with the memorable melody will prove a great track to drop into deeper sets.

Additional mixes come from Agoria, Deniz Kurtel and Tone of Arc. Agoria's mix is played slow, with plenty of feeling, bass forming a wall-like barrier against lots of distortion. Kurtel plays it straighter but darker - throbbing bass creating a sinister feel whilst Synths and echo provide a sense of isolation. Finally Tone of Arc's mix is full of eighties electro-swagger, fuzz and clicks combining with robotic bassline to create am industrial feel.

This is an intriguing release - I just can't wait to hear what comes next... 

Crystalised is released on No. 19 Music. 

Album Review: The Drawing Board - Art Department

Following the praise heaped on debut single 'Without You' (Resident Advisor's single of the year in 2009) The Drawing Board suffers a little under the weight of expectation. It also veers somewhat from claustrophobic and imprisoned to liberated and fancy-free, the latter most definitely being preferable. The album feels lost inside its own ego at times - Art Department's sound has been dubbed "Gothic House" by DJ Mag and to my ears, that isn't a compliment. But at its best this is a work of restraint - the listener left to explore by the space that exists within the composition.

This dichotomy is perfectly epitomised by second track 'Tell Me Why (Part I)' and its sister track, the penultimate 'Tell Me Why (Part II)'. Both are dark, chugging tech-house numbers but the shorter, second part starts stripped of its beat and when it eventually throws a loose bass line into the mix it is accompanied by some jazzy vibes to create a disconcerting collage of sounds. It is both at once paranoid and blissfully unaware. Unfortunately the longer, earlier version has none of the subtlety - it aims for soulful but feels nagging and, sadly, dull. Kenny Glasgow's vocals just feel uninspired and turgid.

There are highlights however. 'Vampire Nightclub' is Art Department at their best. With a slow build and plenty of room, it feels much more like it takes its time than 'Tell Me Why' and that's because, at ten-minutes long, it does. The difference is that something actually happens during all of that time. What makers of modern day tech-house often miss when taking inspiration from their techno forefathers is the importance of progression. Early techno feels revelatory because of its overtly futuristic aesthetic, but it wouldn't have been anything if those early tracks, such as Derrick May's 'Strings of Life', didn't build and evolve. 'Vampire Nightclub' is the best track on this album because it doesn't stay in one place - unlike much here it builds and adds texture.

'In The Mood' also shines, taking the same break used in Q-Tip's 'Breath & Stop'. Here, in the context of The Drawing Board, its brief three-minutes feels raw, intimate and urgent.

Ultimately Art Department could do with taking a little advice from the sample that closes their own (admittedly great) 'What Does It Sound Like': "You gotta always remember the name of the game is what does is sound like?" Too often it feels like the duo believe their own hype.

The Drawing Board has promise but ultimately seriously misfires in a few places due to the over use of meaningless 'soulful' vocals and, sadly, a lack of ideas. Take half of this album and you have some well put together, intelligent dance music - just leave that other half.

BP x
The Drawing Board is out now on Crosstown Rebels, available from Amazon.co.uk on CD and MP3 [affiliate links].