- A deeply distinctive style of techno flourishes on this superb LP.
- Though Sam Barker has been involved in Berlin's music scene for more than a decade, it wasn't until recently that he revealed his voice as a producer. Prior to last year, the Leisure System co-founder and Ostgut Ton artist had released just one 12-inch as a solo artist (his collaboration with Andy Baumecker, however, has produced four EPs and two albums). One reason for this, he told Groove in 2017, might be perfectionism. "I've always made a lot of music but getting to the point of saying 'this is totally done' takes some conviction," he said. "I'm quite critical. I have terabytes of failed prototypes for new genres, and jams I'm never going to edit down because it's more fun to start something new."
Around the same time, Barker started playing a live hardware set with a "pretty strict concept." Perhaps this change in format, plus the years of experiments in its wake, is what finally inspired the perfectionist to stop procrastinating. This past year has marked a defining burst of activity from Barker: first came Debiasing, a euphoric techno EP distinguished by its absence of kick drums, followed by BARKER 001, a single in the same style. He also recently submitted a stunning mix for FACT, which is made up of original material from his live sets. Across these works, more importantly, his artistic voice is both consistent and sublime, showcasing a unique perspective and technique that could only come from years of experience. Utility, Barker's first solo LP for Ostgut Ton, presents this sound in its most special form yet.
Those who listened to Barker's recent EPs will be familiar with this album's style. It's made up of trance synths, barely-there drum sounds and elaborate, non-traditional rhythms. Even without the thud of a kick, the artist proves that club music can achieve a soaring and uplifting sense of motion. Barker says this album is intended to maximize pleasure in a utilitarian way, an outlook underscored by words like "engineering," "machine" and "models" in the track titles. For the producer, who is also a programmer and instrument designer, this may hint at the meticulous and mathematical process that went into his work with modular synthesis. But for the listener, these machine-led concepts couldn't be further from the emotional quality of the music. Utility is above all a gorgeous record, one that sounds human, warm and effortless.
Some tracks here are reminiscent of the choppy techno grooves that appeared on Barker's recent EPs ("Posmean," "Utility"). But overall, Utility's full-length runtime allows the producer to explore more stylistic and psychological states. There are moments of dub's infinity ("Gradients Of Bliss"), IDM's intricacy ("Experience Machines") and dubstep's loping groove ("Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order"). Around these tracks fall overwhelmingly beautiful pieces of music—"Paradise Engineering," "Hedonic Treadmill," "Models Of Wellbeing"—which are not only technical feats but also wistful mood pieces. These shimmering universes of sound are what make the album so mesmerizing and transportive. Though it may have taken Barker years to settle on this style and vision, Utility was worth the wait.
01. Paradise Engineering
03. Experience Machines
04. Gradients Of Bliss
05. Hedonic Treadmill
06. Models Of Wellbeing
09. Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order