ALBUM REVIEW: Dark Sparkler – ‘Are You With Me Or Against Me?’: fine modular retrotronica



BEHIND THE SKY is a young label headed by electronica producer Bluetech, whose concern is retrotronica; its mission statement is it’s “committed to releasing high-quality, limited edition vinyl presses of analog and modular synth music. 

“Paying homage to the history of modular synth music and inspired by sci-fi, retro utopian art and futuristic illustration, Behind The Sky aims to showcase artists looking forward to the future of analog synth music.”

It’s released coming on for a dozen albums in the two years of its existence, the latest of which is the rather lovely and enveloping Are You With Me Or Against Me? , the binary gauntlet laid down by Kyle Swisher, who records as Dark Sparkler.

Kyle grew up with music as his passion, coming through the usual run of teenage bands as a guitarist; unusually perhaps he found that the quality that he kept returning to, kept wanting to perfect, was actually tone. The warmth, the depth, the sweep. The way music shifts inexorably with a shift in tone.

He found his love in Buchla modular instruments, the brand created in Berkeley, California, in 1963 and still going strong. The near-infinite tonal variety they offer seduced him.

Since 2017 Dark Sparkler has found his people in the Seattle retrotronica community, releasing two albums to this latest, I No Beast/I No Angel and Year One; he also runs the he Source Of Uncertainty podcast, for which he’s interviewed such legends of the sphere as Morton Subotnick and Suzanne Ciani.

Embracing the history of the Buchla being a performance instrument, he records his songs live; performing in real time with no MIDI or overdubs.

Kyle says of the new album and that challenge in the title: “I think about the question ‘Are you working with me, or against me?’ a lot; usually in regards to my relationships or most often my past self, but this time it was in the context of my instrument.

“There are sections of the instrument that are designed to work together, but there are points in that partnership where the two sides turn on each other and form chaos.

“For this album I spent a lot of time dealing with this chaos. Shaping it, fighting it, trying to reason with it. All the while asking “Are you working with me, or against me?”

Eventually, by force and at times by accident, I was able to negotiate some beauty out of the chaos. I tethered it to simple melodies and rhythms I connected with, and that brought balance. I got my answer.”

To the new album then, and a brief, ominous intro swells us into the beautiful textures of “Snow Day”; all fuzzing thrum and high melody, it’s ethereal and brittle and superb in a very BoC scape, and evokes the weird whitened world of ice and melt and softened shapes after snow excellently. The underpinning bass tone never strays from its glacially propulsive task, leaving the higher melodies to while It could be one of my favourite tronica tracks of the year; actually, there can be no doubt, it is. We’ve embedded the video for you down below.

At eight minutes, “Same Wave” is the longest piece here, and wastes not a second of that time in exploring the haunting possibilities of slow, tonal unfolding. What begins as quite a clean, nocturnal repeating melody with little counterpoints gradually gains a darker muscle, a more robotic, acid abrasion, speaking of the more industrial qualities of the last two. It almost has grungy cadences and intervals, fitting with its Washington state composition and execution.

“Too Late” is a beautiful five minutes of minor-keyscape, falling away into space on a repeating melody with fuzz and drone out in the distance. It begins to surge and crackle with real power before dropping into diminuendo once more. Simple, yet highly marvellous.

“2” is a really unusual thing: a cover of a Kevin Shields composition. Of course if anyone ever bent six strings into the blur of electronica it was Kevin, and Dark Sparkler’s take preserves all that spectral lilt and distant chordal wash while bringing a singing, staccato high melody line. “Caol Ila” returns to that scouring acid palette with a delicious thereminesque high line for a brilliantly B-movie creepiness.

The title track is a shadowy melange of squelch and alien distortion kept pulsing on subterranean beat-markers, as Kyle works in concert with the serendipity of the Buchla; the album ends in the open atmospherics of “Last Patch”, generative shimmer and sweep with a stately progress and some pretty tonal grain.

If you’re a fan of a real exploration of retro synthesisers and the beauty they bring that went unrecognised for so long; like soundscapes with atmosphere and depth that stay edgy and have bags of ambience without, y’know, being ambient per se; make your way over to Behind The Sky at the links below. It’s a great album that deserves to be better known. And if physical product is your thing, don’t delay too long, as pressings are strictly limited to 300.

Dark Sparkler’s Are You With Me Or Against Me? is out now on digital download and strictly limited vinyl, and may be purchased at Behind The Sky’s webstore or at Dark Sparkler’s Bandcamp page; UK and EU releases are being handled by Norman Records, here.

Follow Dark Sparkler at his website, on Facebook, and on Instagram; you can find Behind The Sky online here, and on Twitter.

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