- When dubstep went global, its most successful artists met a variety of fates. Some migrated to house and techno, while some stuck with an increasingly limited formula. Some, like Skream, ascended to bigger things. Others aimed just as high, and undershot spectacularly. Way back in 2008, the swaggering synths of Joker's "Gully Brook Lane" were an early indicator of the genre's stadium potential. But the tension in early Joker productions—between the austerity of dubstep and his taste for gleeful overload—didn't hold for long. Shortly after Magnetic Man showed how to make a dubstep album with pop appeal, Joker's 2011 LP The Vision got it quite badly wrong. It was grotesque and overcooked in places, but mostly it was just plain dull.
Its followup, The Mainframe, certainly isn't that. This, perhaps, is Joker's "vision" finally realised. It's just as overblown as its predecessor—more so, even, thanks to a palette of expensive sounding orchestral plug-ins. But the vocal appearances are much more sparing, limited to unremarkable turns from Zak Abel and Rochelle, and a skeevy performance from Sam Frank on "Lucy," the album's one truly grim moment.
Instead, the focus has shifted back onto Joker's instrumentals. The producer has described The Mainframe as a "story" that should be enjoyed "from start to finish," like a film, and for once that tired cliche is pretty accurate. The album is cinematic in sweep. There's an absurdly grandiose "Intro," and an "An Intervening Episode" whose luxurious wafts of guitar carry a hint of jazz-fusion. There are three consecutive "Scene"s guiding us through a succession of cartoon landscapes, from the steely menace of "Qo,noS" (a Star Trek reference) to the sci-fi pomp of "Neon City" and the sentimental "Spirit Ruins." The moody segues slotted between tracks are often as entertaining as the tracks themselves.
But all of this is really just embellishment. If The Mainframe is a film, then it's a Michael Bay blockbuster: slick and engaging but totally adolescent in worldview, its plot tortuous, its characters flimsily drawn, all of it an excuse for a string of eye-popping action set-pieces. When they come, they offer a pretty undeniable thrill. "Boss Mode"'s bassline crumples like a metal-on-metal impact rendered in hi-def CGI, while "Midnight" is part boogie update, part euphoric trance breakdown, and part Godzilla-sized dubstep banger. A track like "Mahogany," with its cheesy synthetic piano and searing synths, is bracingly naff, but compelling nonetheless.
Still, just as, an hour or so into Transformers 2, the adrenaline rush peters out and the clunky sentimentality starts to grate, so too does this album outstay its welcome. The title of mawkish closer "Mixed Emotions" sums it up nicely. The Mainframe feels like the album that Joker has wanted to make all along. Whether that’s a good thing is questionable.
02. Boss Mode
03. Wise Enough (Instrumental)
05. An Intervening Episode
06. Lucy (Instrumental)
07. Scene 1 (Qo, NoS)
08. Scene 2 (Neon City)
09. Scene 3 (Spirit Ruins)
11. Love (Instrumental)
12. Fuzz Bop
13. Mixed Emotions