Album of the Week \

Review: Andy Stott’s Beautiful and Brutal Electronic Epic, ‘Faith in Strangers’

Andy Stott's Beautiful and Brutal Electronic Epic, 'Faith in Strangers'

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: November 18, 2014
Label: Modern Love

Manchester-based electronic producer Andy Stott saw his mainstream exposure (by jagged, ambient techno standards) double with 2012’s Luxury Problems, his first album released since he gave up refinishing cars as a full-time job and decided to give music-making a proper go. After a collaborative album this year with labelmate Miles Whitaker (under the Millie & Andrea alias), Stott’s much-anticipated follow-up to Problems is here, with the optimistically titled Faith in Strangers. The album is another leap forward for the producer, refining his sense of songcraft and expanding his instrumental palette without sanding down his rough edges in the slightest. Faith doubles down on the industrial brutality of Problems, while also balancing that with a sense of hope and comfort rarely heard from Stott previously.

You can hear the the contrast most vividly in the album’s two clear standouts: “Violence” and the title track. The former is the most totemic thing Stott has released to date, a lurching behemoth, and the LP’s true opener after the sparse, euphonium-led introductory call that is “Time Away.” The recurring metallic growl that leads “Violence,” unleashed from the silence like a ball of fire, more than lives up to the threat of its title, and by the time the beat bursts into static-enveloped boom-bap — like AraabMuzik remixing Merzbow — it’s almost too abrasive to handle. “Violence” smartly pulls back just before drawing blood, but the marks it leaves are deep and undeniable.

Much of the rest of the album — particularly the scraping “Damage” and the buzzing “Science of Industry” — is of a piece with the rusty, spiked soundscape of “Violence,” which is why the title track, appearing as the album’s climax, is such a stunner. In its own way, “Faith in Strangers” is just as shell-shocking as “Violence,” but what’s breathtaking about “Faith” isn’t its heaviness, but its tenderness. The song is the warmest track Stott has recorded in recent years — there’s even a heartbeat-like sound at the beginning, in case you had your doubts about the album’s humanity — and also the poppiest, with a skittering beat, blanket-like synths, and a gently rolling bass line that glows and pulses like embers at the bottom of a fireplace. It’s a beacon of light amidst the cloudy grey of the rest of Faith, and its presence makes the album twice as rich.

Another element that elevates “Faith”? The way it uses the voice of recurring guest star Alison Skidmore. Yes, the piano teacher who sang on Stott’s breakthrough LP is back for a second round here; on Problems her ethereal arias and quivering coos were used predominantly as an amorphous sonic texture, whereas on Faith her vocalizations occasionally congeal into words, even sentence-long lyrics at a time. She’s still far more Liz Fraser than Kylie Minogue, and songs like “How It Was” continue to use her voice as an instrumental layer, but on the title track, Skidmore’s singing is used to guide and anchor the production, almost giving it a verse-chorus structure and lending an accessibility that’s pretty new to Stott’s work, but well-earned and hardly unwelcome.

We spoke with Stott about his new album’s direction, his second time collaborating with Skidmore, and whether he’s managed to stay financially solvent without having to pick up the paint cans again.

SPIN: I read something you said about an old album of yours, that you were “completely uninfluenced” at the time you were making it. Was that also the case with this one? Were you listening to anything specific, anything that informed the record?
Andy Stott: Yeah there’s more influences this time around, definitely. More like, older sort of pop music. Some Prince, early Cure, and just things like that really. The parts that I liked about these early pop tracks kind of start subliminally coming out in the album.
The title track is one of the poppier things you’ve done lately, and also probably the warmest sounding thing you’ve done in a while. Was there anything that inspired that, being that it’s in stark opposition to the rest of the album, which can be kind of brutal at times?
There’s a lot of changes in the whole process to the album. I was doing it with lots of hardware, and I think it’s bit of a cliché to say things are warm when you’re using analog equipment. But you know, I think that really does matter, and I think what I was using in the way I was using it, it does definitely give a warmth to everything.
You can really hear the difference with the bass in that song.
Yeah, it really makes that track. And this is what I mean by the influence of the early Cure stuff. Those sounds, and John Maus, you know, his bass lines and things like that. I just really wanted to use the bass because I was drawn to that sound. For me it’s like, if you’re going to make an acid track, you’re gonna need a 303. So I just thought I needed that bass for this album, definitely.

Would you go even further in a dance-pop direction? Or is this as far as you think you’re going?
At the moment, yeah. The album’s finished and I’m back to sort of making loops, and I can tell you now they sound absolutely nothing like the record. So it’s time to experiment really now and see what goes my attention.
You worked with Alison Skidmore again on this album. For the last one, you said the relationship came about with you just messaging her and asking her to send you something. Did you work with her directly this time or was it the same sort of process?
A similar process, but definitely more direction. Like, through hearing some of these early tracks, early pop tracks I should say, they just gave me ideas for vocal styles and things like that. I was asking Alison, “Would you want to do this? Should we go down this road? Would you want to do it?” And then yeah, the tracks that she brought and the vocals that she sent me — definitely in comparison to what she sent me for Luxury Problems, which was layered tones basically, with the odd few words mixed in, and I just drenched them in reverb — this time, it seemed there were more verses and more things she wanted to say. So I wanted to bring her to the front of the mix this time. And be careful not to drown her out with reverb again.
Where did the album title come from?
I just kind of thought about what happened to me since Luxury Problems, doing music full-time, and it went from going to the same place every day to work, seeing the same people, to every weekend, you fly into a different country, you’re meeting new people for the first time, like nearly every weekend. And it’s just like, these people… you’re sort of their responsibility. It’s weird. It’s like they’re complete strangers, you don’t know these people, but they’re there to make sure you have everything you need. That was the reason I named it that, because I have total faith in strangers doing what we do. But outside of that, it can mean so much more to so many people in whatever scenario.
And what about the statue on the cover, is there a story behind that?
Well, what happened is me and my mate Shlom, the head of the [Modern Love] label, we tried to find an image that says something towards what the music is saying, so the image has got to fit. The statue, when you first see it, it’s really odd. It’s so striking because it’s so sharp in the image. And the background’s familiar. It’s like a hotel room in like the ’40s or ’50s? So the setting’s really familiar but it’s just the odd striking thing that’s in the middle, and I think that represents the album. I think the style, it’s a bit pop. The setting’s familiar, but once you get in there, there’s something unsettling and something quite wrong about it.

I read that you’re relying heavily on field recordings and found sounds for this album. Is there a really unusual source that you came up with or something that you wouldn’t expect or you wouldn’t understand just from listening?

I think the biggest sort of field recording is on the “Science & Industry” track, the big clanging sound, which is from a museum in Manchester, the Museum of Science & Industry. There’s so many sounds in there.
There’s also sort of another angle on found sounds. The first track starts with a euphonium, which looks like a trumpet but it’s a brass instrument. That’s like a found sound in the sense that the girl that played it is Kim Holly Thorpe. I used to work with her, and overheard her having a conversation with someone about music. The way she was talking about music, I knew she was into it more than that; she knew what she was going on about. It took me a while to persuade her to do something, and I found out she played the euphonium so I was like, “Let’s do something and I’ll try to make it as interesting as possible.” So in a sense that was a “found sound,” overhearing that conversation and what it led to.
I found it stark that you had two tentpoles of the record, “Violence” and the title track, kind of at opposite ends of the album. Was that intentional, the juxtaposition between the two tracks?
Yeah, it’s intentional. This is one of the hardest things of the album. When we finally got the track selection down, it was just the case of putting [the album] together. We wanted to have this transition. We wanted it to be — to use the term loosely — a “journey.” But I hate that! “Yeah, I’m going to take them on a journey.” [Laughs.] Yeah, there’s got to be a thread to it, some thread to it.
You mentioned earlier about the old job you had finishing cars that you left before Luxury Problems. Have you managed to stay out of that industry? Are you still full-time music, no more painting cars? Not even for friends, professional favors or anything?
No, no more painting cars. [Laughs.] And this is the weird thing: I’m restoring a car. I’m into my old cars. And actually, because I didn’t have time, I had this car of mine repainted, and that’s what I used to do for a living. But I don’t have the time now to do it. I’m away on the weekend, in the week I’m writing tunes. I had to pay my old boss to paint my car. It was one of the weirdest things ever. And he’s like “Are you sure you want me to do this?” And I was like, “Well, not really, but I haven’t got time in my life.”