Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Lone – Reality Testing

It has always been brutally ironic that, in a field of largely instrumental-based music, all that electronic artists are…

It has always been brutally ironic that, in a field of largely instrumental-based music, all that electronic artists are desperately trying to do is find a voice; a distinctive calling card or signature, that makes a throbbing mass of people pick out a song on a club dance floor without a messy Shazam recourse. The best electronic artists do: from Boards of Canada’s wispy nostalgia to Burial’s pitch-shifted samples of urban dread. Matt Cutler as Lone, after his terrific rave revivalist LP Galaxy Garden, had found that hallowed ground. With songs bathed in a day-glo atmosphere of sparkling synths, syncopated Tropicana-tinged drum arrangements and maximalist exuberance, it was electronic music that was bravely life-affirming. But what does a person who has ascended to those heights do? In Lone’s case his sensational new album Reality Testing is about looking at the wondrous work he had achieved and deciding to break it down, brick by brick, to go, as a certain navel gazer once remarked, back to the start. 

His breakout album, Emerald Fantasy Tracks found him building on the structures of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada-indebted IDM but infusing songs with buoyant jungle and break-beat drums. The best songs had titles like ‘Aquamarine’ and ‘Petracane Beach Track’ and evoked the spirit of Japanese video games like Tekken and Final Fantasy – ¬of distilling the sounds of ephemeral glimpses of tropical and dreamlike vistas and scenery. Galaxy Garden continued in that same vein but dramatically sharpened the focus by making the sounds brighter, clearer and more synthetic. He managed to create a world where everything glowed with an acid-like intensity, where everything was in sharp focus. 

In a recent interview with Thump Lone remarked that when deciding to make a new album he was making tracks that could have fit into Galaxy Garden but, wary of the danger of stasis, he scrapped those tracks and sought to find new inspirations. That inspiration was in his early skateboarding days, DIY hip-hop production and also the traditional Chicago house organic sound. His fascination with hip-hop has always been apparent from his first efforts with overt J Dilla influences and the stuttering 4/4 beats that were sampled to great effect by rappers like Azealia Banks on ‘Liquorice’. But, as Lone admits, Brainfeeder acts like Thundercat, Teebs and Lapalux already saturate the jazzy hip-hop electronica market. So to standout from that crowd, this album feels less clean and crystalline-sounding than Galaxy Garden but its organic construction makes it sway with more heart and emotion than any other Lone release. 

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The album starts off with the woozy ‘First Born Seconds’, which with its dramatic swells begins the album’s themes of rebirth and re-evaluation.  The second song is the bouncing beat of ‘Restless City’, which showcases an attempt to make his sound more of a human experience – a departure from the synthetic and otherworldly creations of his previous albums. It feels like a soundtrack to the early revelry of a night out, filled with vocal samples that feel like tidbits of stolen conversations. The distant sound of car horns and incessant chatter are brought together by the worn-tape production. The first genuine standout is ‘Aurora Northern Quarter’ which, with its funky and ebullient piano chords, rollick the album forward. The next track, ‘2 is 8’, is a gracious throwback to an early Wu-Tang hip-hop shuffle, interspersed with an obvious BoC reference with the giddy sample of children exclaiming. The centerpiece that first indicated a change in Lone’s style is the glittering thumper that is ‘Airglow Fires’. The single from last year begins with sparkling lounge-piano line before making way for a heavy wobbling synth-line that erupts just as Lone pushes the big bouncy chords to the dance floor. It has fast become one of his most recognised singles, evidenced by its soundtracking of last autumn’s Chanel haute couture collection, but feels even more extraordinary in the context of the album. Its jazzy chord progressions are a throwback to early dance music but its big, heaving house-refrains feel particularly relevant, albeit leftfield, in today’s tacky world of EDM commercialisation.

When asked about his writing process for this album, Lone remarked that he wanted to give it the sound of an exquisitely compiled sample-based record without having to use that many actual samples. The Rhodes piano chord he creates on ‘Coincidences’ is exactly like that in being oddly familiar yet decidedly original. But his real talents lie in his meticulous attention to detail: from the crackling sound on the song that is his attempt at a more natural sound, to the bleeping computer alerts. For someone who so obviously traded in bathing old sounds in the dramatic light of the future, the vocal samples here create the eerie sense of nostalgia that make it feel intensely personal – here reminiscing about an old favourite skating venue. The glistening ‘Jaded’ takes our journey towards the comedown time of the night, with a sultry and slowly winding R’n’B beat. The closest track to his astral past is the booming ‘Vengeance Video’, which reawakens the album with a shot right to the head. The song builds towards a buzzing middle section that is muscular in its groove. This is then frayed out and submerged under a static haze at the end. 

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The experience of the city comes to a fantastic end with the beautiful and sombre ‘Cutched Under’. On previous albums songs like ‘Spirals’ and ‘The Birds Don’t Fly This High’ showed him to want to end his albums with poignant house cuts. ‘Cutched Under’, which is a Welsh colloquialism for relaxing in bed, is built from a hauntingly delicate vocal sample and warm synths buffeted by a break speed drum rhythm. It is a fitting close to a superlative piece of work which, as a modern dance album, still manages to feel powerfully human and uplifting. As the song represents the end of the night, the protagonists leave the glaring city lights for the confines of their hollow bedrooms. The vocal sample utters a line that describes Lone’s brave journey succinctly, “We like to do reality testing to read something, look away from it, look back and examine: has it changed?” It is a powerful statement for the album and for an artist who set out to find himself, not by searching out into the ether, but by burrowing deep inside of himself, his history and what made him love music. To answer the question then: in that respect, nothing much has changed. 

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