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East India Youth - Total Strife Forever

Posted on Sunday, 12 January 2014 | No Comments

 Ladies and gentlemen: please welcome in the first great album of 2014.
The cover of Total Strife Forever sees a painting of William Doyle - he of the East India Youth moniker - obscured by the blank digital blocks of a MIDI file. A neat summation of the old rockist argument against electronic music, an argument now, mercifully, comprehensively beaten down almost everywhere outside the realm of guitar shops and YouTube comments: the idea that electronic music was in some way a corruption or an overwriting of the personal, an intrusion into the organic that would write over genuine personal expression and render everything identikit and empty. That's two macabre little jibes before you even press the play button then - that Foals-baiting title, obviously, but also the idea that this album could be anything other than a deeply personal statement. Because of the many virtues this album holds, it's the heavy emotional undertow and conviction at a very individual level that makes this such an outstanding debut.

Backtrack three years, and our protagonist was fronting the not-terrific-but-they're-competent indie troupe Doyle & The Fourfathers. A session with Marc Riley on 6Music and several successful support tours would suggest a star on the rise, but it was at this point when the plug was pulled on the project for personal reasons. End of act one then, as Doyle then takes a vital left turn. If he was to take on music as a solo artist, a grand re-think was required, a shift away from any kind of acoustic or group format. And here come the MIDI bars to take their bow, because tinkering away in his flat on the Docklands, Doyle embraced the possibilities of the laptop as compositional tool and of modern technology to allow one individual to draw up a sonic realm in minute, exacting detail, to actually tap into the core of themselves far more precisely and clearly than the sometimes clumsy format of a guitar and a bunch of your mates. Slowly, surely, out of these gestations came a new full-length work, a comprehensive re-branding that stripped away generic convention and embraces a whole new world of sounds and ideas...but then we're getting ahead of ourselves, are we?

Although the album itself has essentially been ready to go for a reasonable period, even in these times of flux there is still no real mechanism to allow an artist with a work of quality to sell to get themselves out there without adhering to the industry game to a certain extent. So we had the Hostel EP last year, a fine work in its own right released by The Quietus with the explicit purpose of drumming up attention for the full thing and an attention-grabbing clutch of support slots and festival appearances to get tongues wagging. Having seen him twice now, once at the Beacons Festival and again supporting These New Puritans as they touted the best album of last year to a disappointingly 'select' audience at The Sage in Gateshead, the bait certainly did its trick - this has been one of the releases I've been looking forward to the most coming into 2014, an anticipation only mounted by the drip-feeding of astonishing singles like Looking For Someone and Dripping Down (whose videos also proved him as a man who has his aesthetic on absolute lock-down: the Brutalist flaneur look might have been done before, but it's an ideal fit here). But at last, the games have been made and the right people paid, and here it is: Total Strife Forever. So what just kind of beast do we have here?

On first listen, you could be forgiven for thinking a certain amount of bait-and-switch has taken place. Both with the pre-album releases and the live sets he performed throughout last year, he focused in on a synth-pop element to his sound, the big, dramatic vocal tracks that hold more than a hint of a twenty-first century OMD. Yet the pop tracks are very much outweighed on this record, a record bracketed and interrupted by instalments of the Total Strife Forever suite and other instrumental interludes and excursions. Those pop songs, of course, remain more than worthy of attention. On Dripping Down and Looking For Someone, Doyle's voice, soft yet with a hint of steel beneath, is a perfect vehicle for these tales of love lost within the city, of a passion for the sublime routed into concrete and the unending search for personal identity in the promise of another. They remain astonishing, alluring pieces that look pack to the work of their forefathers let proceed confidently in their own direction. Also from his live set is the fulcrum of the album, the krautrock-tinged Heaven, How Long, a song which moves from bubbling synths and plaintive please to a motorik explosion of light and possibility, and the powerful Song for a Granular Piano, a hushed hymnal that breathes in Laurel Halo and Tim Hecker yet leaves its own distinct prayer. Yet much of the album is unfamiliar, un-voiced ground - and it's in this decision that the bold brilliance of Total Strife Forever makes itself clear.

If the double-disc folly of Shaking The Habitual proved anything, it was that just because you think you can do drone music, it doesn't mean you can. The two lengthy and thuddingly dull drone efforts on that album proved the amount of skill required in crafting minimal pieces that still possessed an internal momentum and could grip the listener with minute adjustments and turns through the remarkable way even an act as skilled as The Knife utterly failed to make it work for them. The four tracks that make up the Total Strife Forever suite prove that Doyle more than understands how to make experimental electronic music compelling though, moving through intimate yet expansive terrain in a manner that would make Eno proud. The extended percussive pulse that drives the first act makes it the most immediate of them, but the slow narrative push towards openness and hope made by the time of the final, album-closing section of the suite offers a fitting answer to the pleas of Heaven, How Long. There's also the beautiful, chilly Midnight Koto (which reminds this reviewer of Kevin Shields's instrumental contributions to the Lost In Translation soundtrack) and the house stormer Hinterland, a driving six-minute workout that sounds like Factory Floor on steroids, yet more dimensions added successfully to the East India Youth sound.

If there was any hesitation or accident in the making of this record, you would not spot it. The genre explorations and diversions found throughout Total Strife Forever do not come across as the half-hearted trials you might expect from a debut, but instead assured statements from an act that aims to take all the loose strands of the last thirty years of electronic music - house, drone, synth-pop and anything else left lying around - and join them up again in the service of a very personal mission. This is not to say that this is a perfect record (as much as his commitment to covering all the bases is honourable, the back end of the album ends up too sluggish compared to the breath-less mid-section), but it seems undeniable that this is a debut album of unusual boldness, assurance and quality. It may have had to bide its time, but no matter - Total Strife Forever has made for an exceptional start to the year.

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