The UK producer takes his ultra-synthetic, shiny sounds to new heights on an astounding debut album.
Roberts was well on his way, but Yugen still felt emotional despite being artificially composed (especially on the heartstrings-tugging "Sun"). His debut LP, Agor, on the other hand, leaves all traces of warmth behind. It is pure, frictionless precision. The tracks were incubated over the course of five years and "hundreds of iterations," and you can hear it: each composition is compacted into its ideal form and emanates an eerie clarity.
Gone are the sometimes fuzzy synths inspired by the familiar landscapes of '80s sci-fi films. This time the music is big, bright and polished, with few atmospheric touches to interfere with Roberts' carefully crafted sounds. Lead single "Joy Squad" is a marvel of perfect timing: a stuttering vocal and pinging melody intertwine and then disengage like planets moving through orbit, their hypnotic rhythms emphasized by brief appearances of a snare-like beat. Although an AI is incapable of aesthetic preference, you can imagine one finding affinity with this sleek and efficient version of (almost) dance music.
Roberts' ruthlessly deductive process also means that half the tracks come in under two minutes—just enough to get a point across without belaboring it. In most cases, these sketches inspire a craving for more, like the celestial twinkling of "Primes" or the playful plucks of "Hance." The similarly brief opener "Yonder" echoes another first track, "A Desire, Nameless," from Hiro Kone's A Fossil Begins To Bray, pared down to an agonizingly brief length. It's going somewhere, but we'll never hear the destination.
The album's most interesting moment, though, comes in "Frozen," which, at three and a half minutes, is one of Agor's longer cuts. Composed of a pure, feminine vocal (the only type on the record, and one relied on perhaps too much in Roberts' music) and a harpsichord-esque melody that almost sounds like a folk song, it nearly disrupts the alien soundscape. But Roberts twice cuts off the singer just as her voice begins to soar into a belt, unexpectedly and brilliantly subverting a climax into a gut punch.
People thrive on full songs, not sketches. We draw pleasure from an uninterrupted voice, from the narrative of verse and chorus, or build and drop. To snatch away the satisfaction of that structure multiple times is unsettling to our resolution-craving brains, and over the course of Agar you realize that Roberts' method is far more clever and dramatic than just surface-level tricks to make a track sound uncanny.
Avoiding emotional payoff in such a nuanced way can only come from a keen understanding of how humans connect with music. You can hear it both in Roberts' choices here and in his work with more emotionally resonant artists like FKA twigs. It's a testament to the clarity of his vision that he could co-produce MAGDALENE, a masterpiece of intimacy, all the while crafting what would become Agor's cold brilliance. His vision for an alien future is sharper than ever.