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Review: Roly Porter Savors, Then Smashes the Silence on ‘Third Law’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 22, 2016
Label: Tri Angle Records

Roly Porter enjoys the silence. The London-based producer’s favorite parts of unleashing the sub-bass as one half of U.K. dubstep duo Vex’d (alongside musical partner Jamie Teasdale) were actually the rolling blackouts of sound before their shuddering drops practically bruised bodies. Their two full-lengths, 2005’s Degenerate and 2010’s Cloud Seed, effectively bookended the genre’s peak before the mainstream started associating dubstep with Skrillex, and the two collaborators parted ways. Bored with most dance music’s rhythmic monotony, Porter went deeper into those “beatless” — not ambient, he continually clarifies — moments, beginning with his solo debut in 2011, Aftertime, through 2013’s Brobdingnagian Life Cycle of a Massive Starand now his worlds-rending third LP, dubbed Third Law.

Porter’s closest peer in this largely empty sonic realm — as deserted as the dance floors he imagines in front of him when performing the album live — is probably a labelmate on New York experimental electronic label Tri Angle: the Haxan Cloak, a.k.a. Bobby Krlic. With the cinematic scope of Krlic (who co-steered Björk’s dismantling Vulnicura), Porter weaponizes sound, making just a single listen to his album akin to enduring a sophisticated psychological thriller like Black Swan, in which much of the tension comes from anticipating the severe jolts of surprise.

Third Law opener and first single “4101” hums like a swarm of bees, gradually picking up subterranean orchestral strings until the volume lapses halfway through. And then, just as your finger increases pressure on the volume-up button, Porter slams through the speakers with the force of a cathedral collapsing on the choir inside. The danger of continually relying on shock value is that each surge of adrenaline can get just as exhausting — especially upon repeated listens — as the beat-based tracks Porter has been trying to move away from. Like the Jamaican soundsystem deconstructionists that preceded dubstep, though, Porter is skilled at manipulating and warping the sounds at his disposal, and the emotions they incur in the listener.

“Mass” is one of the LP’s most gorgeous monsters, but you might not know that if you can’t make it past the Titanic-against-iceberg scrapes in the beginning. Burbling like the Field’s “No. No…,” the remaining several minutes lumber by, buoyed by a background violin swell. Much of Third Law relies on these disorienting juxtapositions of lulling expanses and jagged free-falls onto the rocks below, and at times it is tiring; but it’s also utterly absorbing, and unless you’re blessed (or cursed) with the audible equivalent of a photographic memory, it’s difficult to maintain a mental map of the album’s peaks and troughs — so it’s an occasionally unpleasant surprise each time.

Sometimes, Third Law sticks a bit too closely to Aftertime’s template, a bastardized mix of recognizable sounds like cars crashing and glass breaking. Porter has demonstrated enough afield ambition in his side projects — scoring last year’s reboot to 1988 French sci-fi film Gandahar, and contributing to an interspecies compilation between humans and whales (you read that right) — that he could excavate even deeper into the soundscapes he releases as full albums. Still, Porter is doing pretty well for himself. In trying to transcend dance music, he’s actually made its purest form: an album that’s a listening experience. If the best kinds of DJ sets and electronic-music performances are meant to take the recipient on a journey, Third Law will carry you beyond the pale.