London based electronic duo Darkstar emerged from the dubstep/grime scene of the late 2000s and have since made a career out of socially conscious, experimental synth-pop. Their fourth album Civic Jams is a deeply human digital creation that is less explicitly political than 2015’s Foam Island but just as relevant, a digital essay on the human themes of seclusion, community and disconnectedness in a world on indefinite hiatus.
Favouring ambience over aggression, Civic Jams’ nine tracks trace the spectrum of melancholy; opening track Forest unfurls its sprinkling of choral arrangements slowly and establishes a linear, minimalist template that guides the rest of the album. On more energetic tracks like Jam, 1001 and Tuesday the muted synth pads, volume swells and fragmented, dream-like vocals generate some forward momentum, but overall the album suffers from a lack of tonal variety.
Slower tempo tracks such as 30 and Blurred often blend into one another, the use of repetition and looped organ samples evoking feelings of stunted progress a little too effectively. Comparisons to Radiohead and Aphex Twin are absolutely warranted, for better and for worse. Thankfully, the album rewards multiple listens, revealing subtle melodic layering and some surprisingly delicate moments amongst the stuttering, industrial beats and undulating, muted bass lines.
Civic Jams weaves hypnotic, pulsing beats, mournful vocals and throbbing synths into a multi-layered tapestry of isolation, overstimulation and urban decay. Darkstar have consciously removed any “excess noise”, which works thematically but occasionally leaves many of the quieter moments feeling too similar to register on first listen. Crucially though, the album is thoughtfully crafted, and laced with a cautious optimism for the redemptive qualities of community and human connection in an increasingly chaotic, uncertain political landscape.