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Album Review: Flume, “Skin”

Harley Streten, also known as Flume, has had an extremely difficult job across the past four years: to produce a follow-up to an album so crucial and influential, that he immediately became known for a “signature sound,” and indeed spawned an entire generation of young producers who set out to either emulate his unique, spacey soundscape, or create their own, citing him as a major influence.

With that in mind, I have thought a lot about the concept of a ‘signature sound,’ an idea that can be destructive or a blessing, depending on how you approach it. It’s almost impossible for artists to keep fans satisfied these days. You can go down the Young Thug route, where you constantly release new music in that same style and for better or worse that’s who you are, no more and no less; or you can change it up constantly, a la Radiohead, to the point where the very fact that you are undefinable is how you are defined.

I recently read an article on the demise of the solo album of Rage Against The Machine‘s Zack De La Rocha. Trent Reznor went on record lamenting that part of the reason the album was scrapped was because he was stuck “in the middle of ‘I can’t do this, it sounds too much like Rage / I can’t do that, it doesn’t sound enough like what they expect me to do,’” conundrum. And that is exactly how I imagine Flume must have felt. He can’t repeat his first album, because that’s uninventive and boring, but he also can’t alienate his fans by abandoning his identity entirely.

Flume pre-released five singles ahead of Skin: two bright and sparkly pop tunes, Never Be Like You ft. Kai and Say It ft. Tove Lo; one hectic hip-hop banger, Smoke & Retribution ft. Vince Staples and Kučka, and the wildly experimental Wall Fuck, featuring nobody at all, but probably influenced by many late nights spent up listening to Warp Records compilations. Finally, Tiny Cities featuring Beck was revealed earlier this week, a final teaser before today’s release.

From these singles, and the then-released track-list, it became apparent to me that we’d be seeing three very distinct types of music weaved together throughout the release: glittery pop, heavy electro-hip-hop, and the glistening ambient and/or experimental moments tying it all together, free space to show off his production talents without bending around a singer or rapper’s top line. Having now listened to the record, that wasn’t a completely accurate prediction, although the instrumental tracks are certainly used to patch together those featuring singers and rappers. While these three types of songs are indeed juggled with remarkably well-divided throughout, the album is instead divided into two distinct levels: one is manic, loud and brash, indeed best encapsulated by the song title Wall Fuck. The others meanwhile, are the comedown moments, delicate and brooding, sentimental, and often vast.

The album opens with exactly the kind of track you need to open an album this anticipated. Helix is atmospheric and weighty, holding a tremendous sense of value in its warbling, ambient build. A gorgeous opener, it will no doubt serve as the opening introduction to his live sets. The track breaks down after ninety seconds and rebuilds with layer upon layer of flickery synth scales, percussion and explosive synths. One minute later it drops yet again, into spasmodic, drunken syncopation. It’s remarkable that one track can cover so much ground, no doubt preparing the listener for what’s to come across the next hour.

Helix offers a lot to take in over three-and-a-half minutes, so adding in the buttery Never Be Like You as track two is a clever move for the listener; the airy melody, shimmering chimes and orchestral ambience are not only familiar, but catchy and easy on the ears.

From there, we head into our first hip-hop track, Lose It featuring Vic Mensa. Immediately, it thrusts you into a disorienting, futuristic instrumental space, with duelling rhythms coming at you from every angle possible, with minimal clarity of anchored beat or rhythm. This is a straight-up fire-starter, with Mensa’s squeal, “I might, lose it!” an absolute delight on the ears; his verses are slick and well-formed – no easy feat while battling with Flume’s immensely multilayered production.

Numb & Getting Colder follows in this kind of post-apocalyptic Blade Runner vein, with amorphous sounds clashing and clamouring, all calling for attention at once. Each synthetic sound comes in of its own accord, as though tuning themselves amid the rabble. Soon, the conductor raises his baton and a deeply cavernous rhythm enters, playing with vocal samples and distorted effects, while Kučka’s recognisable, helium-high vocals take the lead. Tove Lo-featuring Say It is next, again, a smart track listing choice, lightening the mood and intensity somewhat after the sonic mindfuck of the previous two tracks, and ahead of the wild Wall Fuck, one of my favourites so far, one that shows Flume freely pouring his production prowess into three commanding minutes. Pika, too, features no guest vocalists. A more minimal, melodic and emotive track, it again showcases his raw production talents, but in a very different, and certainly less fierce scene.

Smoke & Retribution is my favourite Flume track to date. Powerful and raucous, it’s an incredible, furious blend of chaotic production and Vince Staples’ brilliant flow. This traipses well into 3 and When Everything Was New, which, while admittedly not the most exciting tracks on the record, still make for excellent audio exploration. I love the quiet ominousness and the gentle builds, and from here on out, the album predominantly softens.

You Know, featuring Raekwon and Allan Kingdom, is entirely different to the previous two hip-hop numbers and one of the album’s best songs. With understated aggression and a more classic vibe to it all, the verses steal the spotlight, allowing us to see the diversity in what Flume can offer to the genre. These tracks secretly makes me wish that he’d dive more fully into hip-hop production; I have no doubt he’ll one day produce for hip-hop albums – perhaps even record his own, a la Brodinski. The track also has the most interesting lyricism on the record, with the legendary Wu-Tang Clan member spitting his best bars in recent memory.

Take A Chance features Little Dragon, no doubt one of Flume’s personal favourite tracks, considering he recently revealed how much he had wanted to collaborate with the Swedish electro-pop stalwarts for some time. It’s softer, both thematically and musically. This is followed by his second recent collaboration with AlunaGeorgeInnocence, leading on from I Remember. This one features some really gorgeous, unique sounds, a standout on the record due to those metallic, pulsating synths and airy ambient layers. LA’s MNDR is the second last vocalist on the record, showing off very Bjork-inspired vocals atop some of my favourite stretched out bulges and waves on the record. This little trio of female-fronted tracks each take time to reveal themselves to the listener, and each offer refreshing new dimensions of a kind of musical format we’ve heard many times before.

The final instrumental track is Free, and that’s exactly what it feels like – a final jaunt through the doors of highly experimental perception, before the glorious, uplifting Tiny Cities featuring Beck. I absolutely adore this track, it’s completely different to anything on this album, and is certainly my favourite of those with singers. That these two incredible musical powerhouses joined forces in any respect is amazing, and it makes for a perfect album closer.

All in all, this album is ridiculously difficult to digest and take in. It’s like Flume decided that instead of taking his sound in any one direction, he’d push it in every direction possible. Not everyone is going to love Skin, but everyone will find at least a few tracks to love, that’s for sure. I commend his ability to display just how good he is at collaborating, while simultaneously showing off how far he’s willing to push his own boundaries. You’re not going to find many albums that are much Aphex Twin as they are Skrillex, and I’m excited that Flume has done more than enough to shake off any prior expectations of repetition or regurgitation. He hasn’t exactly moved away from that, so much as he’s added an infinite amount of layers to it, and in that regard it is a masterful, thoroughly impressive release.

Listen with headphones.

Flume is set to perform at Splendour in the Grass this July. He will also embark on a headline tour this December along with Vince Staples and SOPHIE. Dates below: 

November 25 | Perth, WA | Perth Arena
December 1 | Brisbane, QLD | Riverstage (SOLD OUT)
December 9 | Sydney, NSW | Qudos Bank Arena (formerly Allphones Arena)
December 10 | Sydney, NSW | Qudos Bank Arena (formerly Allphones Arena)
December 15 | Melbourne, VIC | Sidney Myer Music Bowl (SOLD OUT)
December 16 | Melbourne, VIC | Sidney Myer Music Bowl
December 17 | Adelaide, SA | Adelaide Entertainment Centre

Image: Cybele Malinowski