Observing CamelPhat solely on the basis of their biggest songs, there was no indication they were ever going to release an album. Despite the genuine hit status that Cola and Panic Room have achieved – or perhaps because of it – every sign pointed to CamelPhat following the usual cues that define modern electronic and house music, with strings of singles promoted by heralded live appearances. But with every subsequent move CamelPhat have made, they’ve fallen more into the mould that Disclosure carved out for themselves at a similar juncture in their career, that of an indie-friendly house act looking to buck the conventions that might be anticipated of a modern, charting electronic outfit. Their darker, more minimal sound has already laid down that groundwork, and collaborations with the likes of Jake Bugg and Foals’ Yannis Philippakis (not to mention Noel Gallagher on this album itself) point towards a far less conventional take on modern house, and with an hour-and-a-half runtime on their debut being a statement in itself, Dark Matter has an intriguing pull that few in the same mainstream space have been able to muster.
It’s just a shame that CamelPhat can’t really keep it up, and in what might be a pretty expected reality of an album this long from an act in this branch of electronic music, Dark Matter really can feel like it’s spinning its wheels at times. Not all times, mind, as CamelPhat occasionally stumble onto moments of real inspired tightness and creativity that sees their less predictable, indie sensibility hitting a genuinely solid nexus with their brand of house, but it doesn’t help that a lot of those moments have already been released as singles, and for quite some time too. That can leave Dark Matter feeling like an album built around those pre-existent high points, sometimes being able to mirror them, but more often than an album like this should want, struggling to maintain any consistent amount of momentum. There’s definitely quality within what CamelPhat are doing, but this isn’t the album that highlights that the strongest.
And yes, that is a lot to do with the length that does the duo no favours when creating a compelling sense of flow. Theirs is a sound that’s rarely bombastic and tends to get a lot of its forward motion from the fizzing synth textures and tight percussion, and while in itself that’s fine, there’s only so long that can push on for before it starts losing steam. That’s exactly where Dark Matter falls off, especially as it doesn’t pick up much distinction from track to track at times; in a live setting or as a continuous mix, this would probably work a lot better, highlighting the subtle shifts from moment to moment that can be recognised, but not nailed down in a way that benefits the album as whole. It’s a particular sticking point towards the end, when a lot of the steam has begun to run out and, while not exactly recycling ideas, CamelPhat are pulling from very similar wells without doing much to distinguish them. It doesn’t help that a lot of the guest vocalists aren’t wealths of individual personality either; sure, the likes of Jake Bugg and Noel Gallagher have very identifiable tones on Be Someone and Not Over Yet respectively, but it definitely feels like attempts have been made to replicate the indie vibe with relative unknowns rather than foster any sort of uniqueness between them, especially when the reference points feel so obvious in how Max Milner sounds very like Bastille’s Dan Smith on Keep Movin’, and how Lowes is a dead ringer for Florence Welch on Easier (fittingly enough considering Welch co-wrote it). It contributes to an album that doesn’t have a very good sense of pace, with moments that do stand out peppered across almost the entire feature length of the album, but not being in a place to maintain that throughout, and that can make Dark Matter feel flabbier and less direct than a sound this tight and precise should yield.
Because really, it isn’t hard at all to see where CamelPhat’s merits lie. From a musical perspective, they’ve got a sound that’s pretty much unlike anyone else in modern house, keeping everything very enclosed and low down as a nocturnal production style encompasses a lot of slate-greys and blacks in their sound, and accentuating that with buzzy synth lines that aren’t too far removed from synthwave at times. It’s an interesting sound that’s refreshingly distinct, doubly so when crossbred with other styles to make a darker, more low-key variation of them, like with the slightly haunted take on EDM on Easier, or the brighter, ‘90s-style pianos overlaid on the crunchy synthwave backdrop of Phantoms. At a central level, CamelPhat have an excellent grip on the mood they’re trying to create, and it feels as though they’ve curated the central premise of the album to match that just as well, where their vocalists sound more distant and almost beaten-down than usual as they try to push forward with life again and again, only to wind up spiralling down into the abyss once again. Granted, trying to parse out any great narrative from an album like this is pretty much a lost cause, but it’s held more strongly than usual by tracks like Panic Room and Rabbit Hole that have a built-in instability that makes them feel a lot more propulsive, and Cola is an even more locked-in nexus between the two ends, as a girl in a club gets her drink spiked and proceeds to become swallowed up by the darkness and mal-intent around her that’s exacerbated by a new mix specifically for this album. In that instance, it’s also an area where Dark Matter’s excessive runtime can dilute the overall impact – at half the length it currently is, it probably would’ve been able to hit more directly – but the general, encompassing mood that CamelPhat create can still do a lot of the heavy lifting regardless.
It’s why it’s tempting to be a bit more charitable to Dark Matter than it might otherwise deserve, if only because the intent rings out so strongly and the flashes of greatness within that actually make themselves known in practice. But when reaching those moments comes at the end of sifting through stretches of material that isn’t as zoned-in on that brilliance, there’s a ceiling there that CamelPhat unwittingly creating for themselves. Again, this would probably fare much better in a live setting with the visuals and atmosphere to match the music, but judged solely on the recorded output, Dark Matter feels as though it does need those elements to circle back around and connect with the rest of itself. Still, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that CamelPhat are doing some great work within modern, mainstream electronic music when it comes to defining a sound that’s decidedly removed from others in their field, and there’s certainly a lot of raw material here to draw from when it comes to making that conclusion. A bit more fine-tuning should make it so that potential can be realised sooner rather than later, but as it stands, they haven’t quite reached that level yet.
For fans of: Disclosure, OFFAIAH, Disciples
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Dark Matter’ by CamelPhat is released on 30th October on Sony Music Entertainment.