In September 2020, Daniel Avery released Lone Swordsman, a track he wrote on the day his friend and sometime collaborator Andrew Weatherall died. Of all the tributes paid to the revered DJ/producer, it might be the most striking: a simple melody endlessly dancing over melancholy chords, it’s an exquisitely beautiful four minutes of music. Clearly it was the product of a moment where everything clicked into place: Avery has talked vaguely about “the cosmic energy of the universe” having a role in its creation, but whatever was behind it, Lone Swordsman had a strong claim to be called the best thing that he had ever released. But it didn’t appear on his subsequent album, Together in Static. In fairness, it probably wouldn’t have fitted the mood. Together in Static was a collection of tracks he had written for a seated and socially distanced performance he gave at London’s Hackney Church in June 2020, imbued with all the tentative optimism you might expect given the circumstances, and, while there’s a definite warmth about Lone Swordsman, the overriding emotion it evokes is desperate sadness.
Instead, it turns up towards the end of Together in Static’s successor, where it fits perfectly, not just because Ultra Truth feels like an emotionally complex album – it manages to be both introspective and propulsive, intense and opaque – but because of its quality. Avery has had a rich and varied career since the release of his 2013 debut album Drone Logic, taking in releases that, in their scope and ambition at least, recalled the blockbusting crossover dance albums of the mid-90s – Underworld’s dubnobasswithmyheadman, Leftfield’s Leftism, the Chemical Brothers’ Surrender – alongside stuff such as 2020’s Illusion of Time, an experimental collaboration with Italian electronic auteur and Nine Inch Nails bassist Alessandro Cortini.
His eclecticism makes sense when you take in his musical background – namely, a 2,000-song Spotify playlist where Avery appears to be dumping everything he’s inspired by. It currently leaps without warning from Billie Eilish to Black Sabbath to Severed Heads, and features the blissfully reflective deep house of Mr Fingers alongside a healthy dose of what the late Mr Weatherall once memorably called “absolutely full-knacker proper panel-beaters-from-Prague ’ere-we-go techno”. On Ultra Truth, however, he succeeds in tying the disparate strands of his oeuvre into a coherent whole, with frequently startling results – although the most startling thing about it might be that the standard that Avery set on Lone Swordsman is maintained throughout its 15 tracks.
It variously evokes old-fashioned hardcore on Wall of Sleep, Selected Ambient Works-era Aphex Twin on its title track and Spider and the sonically gorgeous but abysmally named sub-genre of “intelligent” drum’n’bass released by Peshay, PFM and LTJ Bukem on Bukem’s Lookin’ Good label in the mid-90s. The shadow of alt-rock experimentalists My Bloody Valentine looms over the whole album: there’s not a guitar in sight, but it seems as obsessed with the conjunction of beautiful melodies and disorientating noise as they were on Isn’t Anything and Loveless. On opener New Faith, a gorgeous piano figure is gradually consumed by distortion and reverb: the sound of the notes dying away becomes louder than the notes themselves. Only’s sweet vocal is so thickly caked in aural grime that it eventually starts to sound weirdly sinister.
Sometimes, the effect is cathartic and abandoned: the fizzing synthesised drone that overtakes the final minutes of Devotion feels like a pretty accurate rendering of chemically assisted small-hours transcendence. Sometimes, it’s unsettling. The distortion echo and tape hiss casts the ostensibly recumbent electronica of Ache and Spider in an eerie light. Although Higher is prefaced by a snatch of hardcore DJ Sherelle talking about the “beautifully intense feeling of joy and excitement” found on the dancefloor, there’s something ominous about the swarm of noisy electronics that functions as the track’s bassline.
The sonic cocktail of euphoria and disquiet is perfectly balanced: the album flows, despite the fact that you’re never entirely sure where it’s going to take you next. And it fits with what you might loosely call Ultra Truth’s theme, summed up by another sampled voice that appears early on in the album talking about the need for some kind of vague optimism to see you through dark times: “Under the weight of a collapsing sky … look to the light.” Like Low’s Hey What or Gilla Band’s Most Normal – two albums that come from a different part of the musical firmament but nevertheless bear a roughly equivalent mix of noise and exhilaration – it’s an intense listen, demanding in the sense that you struggle to imagine putting it on in the background. Better to stick your headphones on and give Ultra Truth your undivided attention, something it amply rewards.
This week Alexis listened to
Weyes Blood – God Turn Me Into a Flower
Some of Weyes Blood’s stunning forthcoming album And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow sticks to standard singer-songwriter arrangements, but here her unfailingly lovely voice is pitched against beatless, cloudy atmospherics.