I recently came across an old interview with Andy Stott, given upon the release of his 2014 album, Faith in Strangers, for which he switched from using software to an almost exclusively all hardware set-up. He described the process of gathering various pieces of equipment, testing them out by pushing them to their limits, “using them for things you’re not supposed to” and ultimately, “finding solace in the red”. That final comment encapsulates the quality that I love about Andy Stott’s music, and what’s helped define him as a singular and respected artist at the forefront of electronic music. It’s that ever-present and very pleasing feeling of friction, the rub of needles bouncing into the red zone on a bank of dials. But this is tempered by a languid sensuality – a softness – where one can indeed, find solace in the red.
Never the Right Time is Andy Stott’s 6th full-length album, and a continuation of the journey he began a decade ago with the release of a pair of EPs, Passed Me By and We Stay Together. These heralded a radical alteration of his previously clean-lined metallic techno, in favour of cavernous bass, narcoleptic tempos and an almost impenetrable murk of distortion, reverb and general muck. Never mind music for the morning after, this was techno music that had been out all night, all day, all week and was trudging home like a resurrected zombie. Over the course of several albums since, he’s incorporated elements from dance music’s wider ecosystem (grime, dubstep, electro) into his black and white world, and built a fruitful creative partnership with his one-time piano teacher (and operatic vocalist), Alison Skidmore.
Skidmore’s vocal contributions have helped elevate and expand Stott’s bottom-heavy compositions, and what started out as the contribution of ‘vocal textures’ on 2012’s Luxury Problems has developed into fully fledged collaborations. But whereas on previous albums these still tended to sound like dance-tracks-featuring-guest-vocal, on Never the Right Time the partnership is seamless. Lead single, ‘Hard to Tell’ inevitably invites a Portishead comparison, with its smoky guitar noodling, basement bar cabaret tempo and Skidmore’s lovelorn vocals. It’s a gorgeous track and as good as anything by Portishead, for my money. Opening track ‘Away not Gone’ also features guitar (the first time I’ve heard Stott use the instrument) but is much sparser, calling to mind Victorialand-era Cocteau Twins; the guitar providing a gossamer texture into which Skidmore’s reverb-coated voice echoes back on itself, like ripples spreading over a silent lake.
Listeners in search of the heavy chug Stott’s known for won’t be disappointed though, as there is still a good amount of heft and wallop to be found elsewhere. A disembodied and ghostly rave synth introduces the haunted dancehall of ‘Repetitive Strain’; Skidmore’s vocals elevate the skeletal dubstep of ‘Don’t Know How’ and ‘Answers’ is a pure bass-bin joy ride, with an overdriven bassline chafing against equally distorted hi-hats. It’s a track that really begs to be blasted out by a proper speaker stack to unleash its full stomach-churning potential.
But while Never the Right Time is perhaps Andy Stott’s most varied album to date, and one where he seems more confident than ever turning his hand to a range of different styles, overall I can’t help feeling it’s a tad lightweight. In this age of reduced attention spans, and with pressure on musicians to deliver their product in a format that adheres to the dictates of Spotify, I can see why artists would be wary of releasing anything that dares sprawl for more than 45 minutes. Even so, each the time the album draws to a close, I’m left feeling like I want it to carry on. But hey, maybe that can only be a good thing.
I would love to see Stott go further in channelling some of the influences that have permeated his music in recent times, and which are present here too. For as well as the varied forms of urban dance music to which he applies his custom coating of grit and grime, Never the Right Time also includes the unmistakable infiltration of 80s synth pop . The reverb-drenched electric piano interlude ‘When it Hits’ (which ironically never actually hits) sounds like someone warming up to deliver a power ballad. And ‘The Beginning’ is a scantily disguised 80s pop song, with its wobbly synths, shuffling drum machines and Skidmore’s breathy vocals. It may be the case that Stott is only able to get away with this by instantly following that track with the crushing bass beast of ‘Answers’, bringing that stark contrast of light and dark that’s always been integral to his music (and the consistently excellent sleeve art). But I for one would be very content to seem him indulge the lighter side more on future releases, and with Alison Skidmore’s stunning voice in his arsenal he can be a true chameleon. In the meantime, Never the Right Time marks another chapter in the career of a unique and accomplished artist.