Thursday, 8 August 2013

Raffertie - Sleep Of Reason


When focusing on the current electronic scene, it's always fascinating to watch an upcoming producer not just open their palette to these refreshingly enticing sounds and ideas, but too use it in such a way that demonstrates a certain awareness and understanding as to its limits, as well as the benefits they've so often expressed as having. To say that UK producer Benjamin Stefanski is aware of such a thing as limits, would understate the scale his craftsmanship as Raffertie, aims to invoke. Over the past two years, Stefanski has played and toyed with the sounds taking over currently-trending electronic music as of late. From the breakbeat pulses and instrumental toying of 2011's Visual Acuity, Raffertie has been a name very few can pin down to just one underlining tag. And with 2013's Build Me Up - the anticipation-building extended play closing down the gap until his debut LP for Ninja Tune was released - Stefanski finally felt like he'd found his proving ground amid the bubbly, moody treads of downtempo electronics, mixed with rhythmically emotive suggestion. It's no surprise, it must be said, that three of the four compositions find themselves on Raffertie's longer-playing debut, Sleep Of Reason; a 13-track blend of minimal instrumentation, pocketing atmospherics and a silhouette-like tearing between one's overruling passion, and one's realist acceptance.

To see Stefanski's portrayal for the album sleeve is one of a silhouette-like clasp of black to the background's vacant white, isn't surprising. From the very first compressed squawks of bass and harped synth notes on opener Undertow, Raffertie expels a darkly identity in a World far afield from the bliss and colour many other records often orientate towards. Immediately, in terms of texture and sonics, I feel drawn to comparing this fixation on the depth of beats and [a lack of] colour to artists like Vessel, Andy Stott, and the methodology of acts like Actress and Zomby for which was showcased on his recent album (albeit not in as enclosed a delivery). The track's latter lead of clicked beats and Stefanski's murmuring emotion of vocals, too bring light to the album's confining prologue, but even then - dirty-aired synths creeping up from the back thereafter - the feeling is that Raffertie is standing not as one in conflict with his World's tension, but is agreeing with it. Straight from this brief less-than-three minute caution of surroundings, the strained, echoing minimalism of guitar strings and beats on Rain emphasize that somewhat understanding tone of expression; here using it to pronounce, as we discover, the end of a relationship. His voice - while offering a degree of compassion - through its directness, gives the distancing feel a heavier weight of impact. It come across weighed down seemingly by some unparalleled acceptance that no amount of emotion or pressure can shake off, 'Please don't cry/In time it will mend/You'll see there's more to life.' But it's when the track drastically picks up in intensity - vocal layers and drum beats crashing together like rain hitting pave-stones - where the music increases in tension until only the most stricken of words, 'I just know that I want you to go' finally break through - like an argument finally reaching both its climax and its tethers.

Build Me Up - while reverts to Raffertie's former exploring of the more direct RnB vibes amid its encircling beats and sharp synth textures - still manages to maintain that partially withdrawn state, while maintaining the track's atmospheric leaning towards gritty, dimly lit shrouds of space. However, the fact that it's one of the three tracks taken from a previous EP (and thus previous time/state of recording and song-writing) is evident in Raffertie's lesser effectiveness in vocal delivery. Here, not only does it lack in holding up both in its content as well as its delivery, the integration from an album stance, doesn't come off as well-suited to the music's weightless, phasing of presence. Gagging Order follows in this same patterned skit of vocal shifts, but instead feels pleasantly more suited to the track's jittery indecisiveness. Stefanski's multi-track presence - both in a human quality, and this shadowy alternate harmonically - further pushes this dramatic tone the track keeps shifting between, amid its grated beats and piano mumbling. But with Touching, the listener finally gets a taste of Raffertie refining his sound to suit the RnB grooves and similarly-afield fixation on intimate emotion. While there remains that tentative balance between the beats on one side, and the instrumentation on the other, the sternness the electronics seem to show suggests more a focus (from Stefanski's perspective) on asataining rhythm, over atmosphere. There are parts however where I feel his revealing of the more emotive electronics, do come off a little too forced or overlapping; in parts adding unwanted flare to what is a very crisp spreading of texture. For the most part though, there's a decency in how the focus keeps to the process and its importance, rather than the effect Raffertie wants to offer.

So when he ensures his focus is on beats primarily, that's where the secondary path of atmosphere and all these necessary applications of effect, truly come into full force, as is the case with the texturally-rich and minimally-charming Last Train Home. For certain, this track has one of the best beats, texturally, of the whole album. And that's thanks to Raffertie's way in which he addresses the discreet contrast between one the individual, and two the surrounding environment. But rather than being of that same black-against-white dynamic, things here feel more black-on-black...or rather, frosted black against glossy black perhaps in a more viscous context. The textural effect the beats have on the empty space present, conjures up (for me) the image of marbles tapping across a glossed floor. Yet because of the track's mirky atmosphere and scrutinizing treatment of Stefanski's vocals, I find my sight shifting again to something more in line with the interior of an abandoned industrial complex, or some other similarly dirtied floor-space. The fact that he offers such simple electronics, yet masks it in just enough textural suggestion, gives a tremendous amount of psychological persuasion to the music - thus the overall blackening quality as a result conjures some of Raffertie's most persuasive sounds to date.
 

Once more though, where I find myself caught wide-eyed by the sheer immediacy a track previous has offered me, I end up pulled rather despondently, back down by the lack of consistency thereafter with a track like Trust. Where it's clear Stefanski's attempt in laying both his own and Yadi's vocals in a sort of squinted clarity, is to create this similar weightless compassion and loft of emotion he's expressed throughout, the arrhythmic flow the lyrics come off in, doesn't feel as well connected or direct as previous tracks. Worse, the awareness to the beats in the background is barely present - electronics coming off like they're struggling to even be heard from behind this inescapable swell of forced vocal noise. Principle Action makes up for that in parts by offering vocals more the left-field scatter of noise breaks - fortunately not getting in the way of the track's principle lead of beats that here come across more tentative and scaled-up but not overly as intense or climatic as previous tracks. Still, there's a decency in how vocal layers are slotted in-between the production, and while the vibes from this track are less concrete and direct on the emotions, there's still a level of control and structure in Stefanski's managing of the effects used and relaying them forward to his listeners.

While this album - or at least the second half of it - focuses less clearly on the RnB flavoring of emotions with beats, Known sees Raffertie still attempting with some dignity to flesh out as much honesty from out his instrumentation, as he can get. But it's the bubbling progression of synthesizers that do the most justice here - not only coaxing the track in a kind of distancing tensity, but too alluding to the music's overall feeling of being that of such direct intensities of emotion. Instrumentally, the album's back allotment does seem to reference a return to earlier expositions in downtempo alignment, as Window Out's raggedy piano delivery and in-and-out conjuring of background samples suggests. But even with the added focus on such sound, Raffertie's overwhelming coat of thick, darkly tension he treats his sounds with, is what comes to define the piece. Neither consuming the music, nor wavering away by contrast, it's this process of tone and vibe that gives the cold hitting of piano keys and waning violin strings a more anxious and enshrouded feel than what we've experienced previous. Back Of The Line closes the album shortly after with Stefanski offering a more mid-range tone of vocals while musically, the piece surprisingly shows Raffertie experimenting with rowdier guitar chords and a deeper impulse of percussion. But even with this lasting offer of variety, it doesn't go far enough to shrug off what is a fairly muddy and sloppy production throughout - even with the low frequency of blurred effect and reverb emphasizing the album's everlasting theme of distance and spatial emptiness.


It's pleasing to find an artist such as Raffertie - though lacking that final push in making the overall theme, running through an album, fulfilling and reflective to the artist's intent - whom after years of toying, experimenting and refining his sound to the very last chip of unwanted noise or muffled desperation, can address a particular concept of sound with both decency and understanding. Sleep Of Reason makes the most of Raffertie's deliberate simplifying of sound and offers the vast, environmental dusk of open space the chance to both define the music, as well as invite the listener into Stefanski's unique World of mood, tension and ambiguous beats. And while my criticism of this record lies in the guy's over-complication and issue of layering at times to denote some manner of tension or mystery surrounding the piece, that's not to say this is a bare album. Raffertie's expansion on his rhythms and his tone through emotional and visual context alike help pull this album from off its singular, lonely base of operation. Through it, the emphasis he puts on depth and atmosphere pays off, in some parts, to tremendous effect and detail. While the tracks borrowed from the EP of the same year at times generate an unwelcome disconnect and looseness in the album's flow, when the flow is there it's one that enshrouds the album like a black cloud ready to burst open with floods of rain. Raffertie may not be the first to explore low-frequency depth in electronics, but he at least stands among the fresh-faced newcomers that proove - even on debut - said concept most definitely works.
~Jordan

7.6

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