Ahh, it’s been a while since a genuinely surprising great album fell into my lap; introducing debut LP Sleep of Reason from British electronic musician Benjamin Stefanski, aka Raffertie.
Last year, How To Dress Well came out with their sophomore release Total Loss, a somewhat disappointing followup to their debut Love Remains but one that highlighted well the rising popularity of Contemporary R&B. I always wanted that LP to have a little more meat to it, a little more mystery and intrigue carried over from the lo-fi on their debut but it didn’t pan out since they took a more refined and sharpened route; fortunately it feels like Raffertie read my mind and has produced the throbbing, Dubstep inspired enigma I always wanted.
“Undertow” opens us to this dark, ethereal atmosphere beautifully as it opens on growling glitch beats, slipping quickly into thick Dub beats and slow synth sirens as Ben begins singing in a clipped fashion, deeply buried under the growing plethora of beats. The 170 seconds pass by entirely too quickly as we get sucked under by the lush electronica into what has got to be a The xx inspired track in “Rain”. Slow percussive beats mirror the distal, heavily reverbed guitar and the ever elusive vocals. There’s also a very faint layer of record-surface glitch pattering in the backfield to what perhaps is the most intimate track of the album.
“Build Me Up” is exactly the track that made me think of How To Dress Well on my first play through; “build me up but don’t let me go” Ben repeats amongst the gigantic, crawling basslines, these thick slabs of compelling low-frequency beats just keep the track eternally tumbling through instrumental breaks and returns. It’s repetitive, sure, and there’s a heck of a Techno vibe here, especially in the cheeky synth riffs, but it’s gorgeous throughout. It also rolls perfectly into the chopped up “Gagging Order” with its piano strokes, noisy synths and skittering electronic breaks. Unbelievably we’re barely at the 1/3rd mark yet.
“Touching” starts slow and mournful on a bed of light drone, slowly welcoming more percussive elements of increasing tempo into the darkness; “And when we touch/ I can’t breathe” Benjamin repeats endlessly to the climbing euphoria. Texture after texture is silently introduced until suddenly we’re facing down a myriad of syncopated electronic beats and all our limbs are tapping to the mesmerising rhythms; we only notice at the half way mark as Raffertie grants us a brief moment of instrumental silence before we tumble back into the fray.
My personal favourite “Last Train Home” asserts itself with clipped percussive beats, slowly introducing some uncertain synth notes before morphing into some sexy bass grooves. As with every track, that powerful rhythm drives the piece inexorably forwards with unwavering loyalty and no evolution, pausing only briefly to keep things interesting. It’s so thick and vast, listening to this at any volume level other than the maximum tolerable just doesn’t do it justice, especially in those moments where Ben warps and twists his voice into a glitch smear. Again we see another odd but logical juxtaposition as we move into the “cooler”, briefer and less driven “Trust”; “If you do it again I’ll leave” he croons alongside the barely-there melody. It’s quiet, minimal and just as evocative as any of the bigger, bolder tracks.
But this reprieve doesn’t last long since the intoxicating “Principle Action” is on its way in; fragmented, up-pitched vocals and intermittent synth blats introduce the album somewhat creepily and unusually, parting suddenly as the bassline gets thrown down. It’s a track that I’ve seen criticised as not quite knowing what it wants to do, and that’s somewhat accurate; there’s a lot of wet synths flapping and giving it an oddly 90’s vibe and it terminates pretty abruptly as it runs out of steam but getting there is the fun part. I really love how it changes tack so rapidly, how it constructs its weirdly compelling tower of beats and manages to lay it on so thick for so long.
As we get into the final third of the record I can’t help but feel like things begin to taper off just a little bit; after a stellar and largely empowering 9 tracks “Known” wants to begin reining it in just a little bit as those xx guitars return to steal the show and seek to keep the level low for the afterparty, holding back the synths and the unusually restrained bass. “Window Out” is equally unsure as to how to approach itself, flipping back and forth between keeping the piano and the throbbing basslines at the fore whilst also introducing what sounds like church bells and the sound of running water. It’s still intelligently and carefully crafted but undeniably undecided.
“Black Rainbow”‘s growling guitar and ferocious percussive elements couple with the delicate pitter-patter of xylophonic electronica in the penultimate track and it’s a gorgeous sight to behold, merging the pain of separation with the bright hopefulness of future optimism; it’s both sad and cute (in its own, sort of painful kind of way). Lastly, “Back of the Line” takes us out on a surreal note, reminiscent of some sort of bastardised black choral group adapted for modern day electronic with its pitch shifted vocals and thin keyboard organ notes. It does have a certain eclecticism and panache that makes it bizarrely compelling though, it must be said, and it’s such a wonderfully high note to end the album on.
Sleep Of Reason is a big, ambitious album and by god does it deliver. There are times, I will concede, that it perhaps doesnt quite know what to do with itself and becomes trapped in a world desperate to break out of the monotony of the Dubstep dominated tunes but it more than makes up for itself with the sheer quality of production and consistently emotional content. There’s definitely some club-ready beats here but it’s also a perfectly excellent album to enjoy at home. First album in a while that’s really made me stop and stare. Killer.