There is a powerful, sinister quality to Ask the Dust, the newest release from Milwaukee-based electronic producer Lorn. The album has almost a transformational quality to it. I first listened to it in a Laundromat, as once innocent looking dryers morphed into cold and distant industrial machinery; a paunchy, shirtless man transforming from an eccentric curiosity into a symbol of hopelessness with whom I was suddenly unwilling to make eye contact. It was as though suddenly my laundry trip was directed by Christopher Nolan.
The foreboding nature of Ask the Dust seems to draw inspiration from a number of sources, mixing the industrial groove of Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer”, the forward-thinking hip hop of Shabazz Palaces, and the European dubstep of acts Burial. The dubstep touchstones are easiest to parse, particularly due to the album’s near-fetishization of bass and haunting, disembodied vocals. But the album grooves in a way uncharacteristic of the genre, occasionally substituting the often clicky-sounding drum machine percussion of the genre with live percussion. Lorn pays an incredible amount of attention to detail, punctuating his songs with icy synths and buzzing bass tones that have clearly been tweaked in order to set the right mood. The result is an album equal parts slinky and ominous, occasionally even challenging in its most bleak moments.
Ask the Dust announces its presence immediately with “Mercy”, a song that serves as a mission statement for the rest of the album. Buzzing bass tones and snare hits underpin swirling synths that cut in and out around faint grunting. The song is constantly in motion, with Lorn keenly layering synths on top of each other, tweaking the volume, experimenting with pitch. The song feels almost panoramic as a result, and it takes a number of listens to fully parse through everything going on in the mix.
Not all moments on the album are quite as accessible as the opener, however. “Diamond” is Lorn at his most darkly experimental, sounding almost like a satanic reboot of Drake’s “Headlines”. Lorn utilizes echoing hand claps, synthesized strings, gurgling bass noises and monstrous vocals as though composing the soundtrack to a nightmare. The track climaxes with the entrance of a seering, smarmy synth line, adding an exhilarating air to the song’s unsettling nature. It’s a bizarre song no doubt, but rewarding as such, somewhat like a David Lynch movie.
The album becomes more easily digestible on “The Well”. The song is built around a rudimentary drum machine beat and a synth line sounding something like Gregorian chanting. As the song progresses, the central hook ebbs and flows, with Lorn peppering additional percussion, overblown bass tones, tweaked synth lines and haunting, pitch corrected soul samples into the mix. “The Well” is filled with hook after hook, adding a level of swagger to the by now familiar sinister tone of the album.
Fans of the Drive soundtrack will find a lot to like about the “The Gun”, featuring the same style of driving (heh) and hypnotic electronica as many of the songs from that film. The synths are particularly arresting on the song, both icy and resonant as they chime in over warbling bass and clicking percussion. The song is one of the few featuring vocals, although mostly unintelligible, as a deep, gravelly voice coos in monotone. “The Gun” has a cool and pensive air to it, and it wouldn’t be a poor choice for a slow motion walking sequence.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, rising producer Martyn, an analogue for Lorn, quipped that American dubstep has effectively taken the place of nu-metal, describing the rising build of bass drops characteristic of the genre as “orgasmic reactions”. Regardless of what you think of the substance of that evaluation (which, given that Korn recently released an album with Skrillex and that one of Bassnectar’s most popular songs is a remix of the Deftones’ “Prince”, may actually be a pretty cogent analysis), the statement is pretty telling of the changing perception of electronic music. Electronic music has always been stereotypically orgasm-centric, defined by predictable climaxes and lyrics featuring comically awful innuendo. The rise of subgenres like dubstep and chillwave is bucking that perception, and suddenly producers like Martyn and Lorn are releasing “intelligent dance music” that ironically isn’t even meant to be danced to. The music itself is becoming more evocative, centered on composition and mood instead of cheap thrills. Ask the Dust fits easily into this category. While Ask the Dust is not likely to appeal to the glowstick-toting, mollied-out masses, it differentiates itself as an artistic statement, an experimental electronic soundscape serving as a sober reflection on darkness.