- Joe Cowton has come a long way. When the English producer debuted as Kowton in 2009, his 2-stepping Stasis (G Mix) / Countryman perfectly fit Keysound's nocturnal moods. Since then he's orbited around his own nexus of dubstep, grime, house and techno. But his percussive sound never crystallized, moving freely from the spare drum tracks of his early Livity Sound records to more synthy and bass-centric fare—which is probably the best approach for any future-facing dance floor practitioner. Back in 2010, RA wondered, "Can a producer successfully traverse the boundaries between dubstep and techno?" Cowton went on to both answer the question and prove that his knack for hybrid sounds didn't end there.
Then, loosely around the time of Pev & Kowton's ubiquitous "Raw Code," something like a trend began to emerge, as the London shapeshifter grew increasingly invested in straight-up techno. The genre's functionality and relentlessness became a hallmark of his solo productions and collaborations alike. Which was all very exciting and invigorating for the club sphere—Cowton had gone completely through the looking glass, and what he found on the other side was, to be blunt, pretty fucking sick. A streak like his—so far-reaching, eclectic and seemingly effortless—doesn't come around often, and it venerated the Kowton name.
"I don't think I meant to do an album," he recently told RBMA, but of course it had to happen. Utility comes nearly seven years into a rich career, so its nine tracks don't tell an origin story so much as present the creature Kowton has become. It turns out that he's matured into a familiar beast. Said to be influenced by Robert Hood's Minimal Nation and Shed's Shedding The Past, Utility is a techno record, full stop. And for this particular techno record, that means workmanlike structures and soundsystem efficiency far more than experimentation. The genre that was once Cowton's muse, luring him into unforeseen musical grey areas, has become the dedicated lover that scorns his wandering eye.
In places, Utility thrives on such loyalty. Tracks like "Balance" and "Sleep Chamber" use techno's linearity to tap into stark grooves that command disoriented movement. Indeed, the most rhythmically adventurous tracks foster the essence of past Kowton highlights—even something as blatantly loop-centric as "Loops 1" can get by on the charm of its brash, angular contortions. But in the least engaging moments, Utility sounds either bored with its limitations or simply oblivious of their interference. It seems impossible to imagine a track as mechanically aimless as "Comments Off" or as unexcited as "Bluish Shadow" released as a Livity Sound single.
For all of its differences, Utility only sounds unnatural in the Kowton discography when it undermines the strengths of the music before it. There are none of the bright chords or busy FX that colored last year's On Repeat / Holding Patterns, or the levity that made tracks like "Glock & Roll" so irresistible. And what flashes of unique character there are—like the noirish glint of "Bluish Shadow," the wispy synths that drape over "Shots Fired" and the dubwise harmonica in "Balance"—tease at the varied potential.
Strictly utilitarian dance music is romanticized in certain circles, whose cohorts praise constraints and discourage embellishment. That way of thinking pervades Utility, and it's at odds with the inner-workings of Cowton's bold, inventive style. But when used with tactful ingenuity, as on a light-footed clockwork roller like "Some Cats," the cold minimalism can enchant and approach something close to fun. In those moments, Cowton's dynamic history, even as an echo, enriches the precision.
01. Comments Off
04. Sleep Chamber
05. Some Cats
06. Loops 1
07. Bubbling Under
08. A Bluish Shadow
09. Shots Fired