Review Summary: A masterclass in high-definition sonics, this gripping sci-fi odyssey is the experimental electronic album of the year.
After departing his UK dubstep duo, Vex'd--an early pioneer of the long since deceased genre--in 2010, Roly Porter quickly set his sights on more grandiose territory: the majestic yet foreboding black void that envelops our minuscule blue speck, sparsely lit by tremendous ghostly candles hung in the night: our cosmos. His solo material has since been explicitly devoted it: each track on his 2011 solo debut is named after different fictional planets of Frank Herbert's Dune
; the title of his sophomore, Life Cycle of a Massive Star
, speaks well enough for itself; while the title of his latest is in reference to Sir Isaac Newton's revelation that all actions of physical bodies in our universe have equal and opposite reactions. Now, as lofty and high-brow as all of this is, it would all be in vain if the actual content wasn't something spectacular. Thankfully, it is. Though Porter composes beatless, arrhythmic music, as Ben Frost and Tim Hecker fans will be most familiar with, it'd be blasphemy to label it 'ambient': sometimes wondrous, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes full-on paralyzing, it's anything but a passive listen. And with each new release, he's made marked improvements in his production techniques, mastering quality and overall ambition, to the point that he's now deserving of producing the soundtrack to a big-budget, sci-fi/thriller film. At this point in his career, his music doesn't just benefit from high-quality speakers and headphones--it demands them.
Where Porter's previous effort focused on an inanimate, albeit gargantuan object, the experience Third Law
provides is a deeply human
one--as though we've been thrust into the passenger-seat of a space traveler's consciousness in some distant future--and as a result, it's his strongest yet. The adrenaline-packed opener, '4101', finds Roly immediately flexing his sonic prowess, violently thrusting us into his breathtaking, alien world. It begins with a dizzying barrage of liturgical choir samples and various smatterings of electronics on the highest and lowest ends of the frequency spectrum, establishing a tense atmosphere of trepidation. Though beautiful, layered synthesizers enter the mix and tease alleviation, subsequent thudding, skittering, and shrill noises dispel any such hope. The pressure continues to mount, steadily, deftly, until it comes to a peak--in the track's arresting climax, Porter finally unleashes repeated flurries of monolithic noise-blasts, alongside the transcendental choir and cold, mechanical howls. The denouement then tactfully closes out the track by playing with its key elements while toning-down the more jarring ones, avoiding a disappointingly straightforward fade-out. Overall, it's stunning, and at its pinnacle evokes an uncertainty as to whether you're weightless or in total free-fall, at least until you realize it doesn't matter--it's the same threatening yet sublime experience, regardless.
The second track, 'In System', explores the opposite side of the album's emotional coin: awe and wonder. Featuring a stuttering electronic undercurrent, synthetic strings, deep 808 bass kicks, trembling synthesizers and abrupt, but unstartling dull clangs--presumably naturally occurring noises of the hypothetical starship or space-station we're inhabiting--it serves to stir your imagination. As though its predecessor was a nerve-wracking take-off or jump to hyperspeed, we're now able to fully take in the stark, mysterious beauty of this hitherto uncharted star system, drifting silently, surely, through the staggering blackness. The following cut, 'Mass', opens with an alarmingly eerie passage that jumps straight into a brief, but blinding noise-tunnel, before transitioning into the heart of the piece--a rapid, ever-shifting coalition of bass, abrasive noise, and keys that rapidly bounce in unison below frantic vocal samples and synthetic flutes. It doesn't possess the incapacitating fear of '4101', but there certainly is a distress here, though of a milder sort. 'Blind Blackening', the fourth and longest track, begins rather unassumingly with a sombre, synthetic flute, but it's eventually undermined by a sinister grumbling and unnerving splashes of piercing tones. The grumbling evolves into a sonorous behemoth, one that takes hold of the mix with a vise-grip, and is supported by heavily processed, otherworldly vocals as the suspense mounts. By the time the extremely high-pitched, bone-chilling strings have entered, the anxiety level is turned up to a fever pitch: it's a truly hair-raising passage, reminiscent of Alien
(1979)'s most horrific moments. Finally, the ending arrives, and it's a welcome recess from the sprawling madness, featuring disjointed samples from a mournful choir in cathartic lament for the dead.
's second half offers us more of the same essential elements, but they're arranged in some novel forms. 'High Places' presents a paradox of marvellous strings and synths paired with sudden flashes of noise, as if we're exploring mysteriously beautiful, though nonetheless frightening catacombs of some long since fallen species--we're in awe, but jumping around every corner. 'In Flight' starts off with a short Arca-esque prelude before launching us into the high-velocity heart of the track, whose rapidity is more so due to intense focus than intimidation, like the soundtrack to an AI's racing, evolving mind. 'Departure Stage' is a lumbering, menacing goliath, one that eventually disintegrates into a sweeping synthesizer passage, as though we've just bore witness to a titanic starship or supernova: initially trembled by the sheer magnitude of the sight, our protagonist ultimately concedes and surrenders to its awesome, almighty power. Lastly, 'Known Space' is a tense, perturbing finale--more so in an arcane sort of way than an implication of suspense; one that suggests there is greater depth to the celestial engineering of the universe than our main character can currently comprehend--which finishes the record off with one last wondrously alluring synth melody, standing all alone, defiantly, amidst the cold, unforgiving, endless black.
Taken as a whole, this is a masterclass in sonics: the amount of attention-to-detail and nuance on display is overwhelming; the originality and diversity of the sounds Porter's synthesized is astounding; the balance struck between hair-raising and imagination-stirring passages is particularly adept; and it's all coated with a crystal-clear, high-definition sheen. In essence, Third Law
is a marriage of the best elements of fellow brethren Ben Frost's last two records--the raw, visceral power displayed in the best moments of By the Throat
(2011); the suspenseful, thrilling sci-fi/space narrative of A U R O R A
(2014)--and in turn, it's arguably the best experimental electronic album of 2016. The only thing holding Roly Porter back at this point is the fact that these compositions lack any tangible, corporeal narrative; that the visuals and plotlines are left completely up to our imaginations. But the fact that he's able to inspire our minds to this degree with audio alone is quite a feat, and, hopefully, it's assurance that his remarkable work will be paired with and contribute to a deserving film to hit the Big-Screen in the coming years.