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While many artists would capitalise on the buzz of their biggest track, rushing out new releases every other month, keeping pace with ever-changing trends and taking any remix request that falls into their lap, Airhead has only put out three 12”s since the release of Pembroke (his breakthrough debut single, produced alongside old friend and semi-frequent collaborator James Blake in 2010). He’s also kept a fairly low profile in that time, rarely giving interviews and maintaining a social media presence that’s minimal at best. And even though he has kept himself busy in this time – he plays guitar in Blake’s touring band, and spins records at Plastic People’s 1-800 Dinosaur parties – this is more as a background figure and collaborator rather than as a solo artist.
Airhead’s silence doesn’t seem like any deliberate mystery making, though. One simply suspects that he does things on his own clock, and that the drive to put his own music out into the world has never been particularly urgent. Enter ‘For Years’, Airhead’s long overdue debut album for R&S Records. Its title references the length of time it took to arrive, with some of the tracks that make up the album (Wait, Milkola Bottle, Azure Race) having been kicking about as far back as 2009. One only needs to look at the contemporaries of the post-dubstep movement that Airhead was first affiliated with for comparison – both Blake and Mount Kimbie are two albums down by this point.
The album can, generally speaking, be divided into two styles. The first is a mixture between early to mid-00s alternative rock and post-rock, and the sort of post-dubstep experimentalism that Airhead made his name on. Wait is a collage of slow guitars and fragments of vocal samples (taken from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Maps) that breaks out into a sweeping post-rock song before winding back down almost immediately, as if abashed by this little outburst. Autumn is a gorgeous pastoral folk song mixed with a swinging dubstep-esque beat, and Masami is a slow drift of ambient sound, plucked strings, distant voices and cavernous handclaps occasionally dropping in before disappearing as suddenly as they appear. Artists from recent indie history like A Silver Mt. Zion, Cat Power and the aforementioned Yeah Yeah Yeahs seem to be reference points throughout, and whilst an interest in this style of indie rock isn’t exactly unexpected, it’s rare to hear a musician so closely associated with dance music reworking it in a contemporary framework. It all feels a little off-trend, out of sync with the rest of the musical landscape, once again suggesting Airhead’s own desire to do what he wants to do at his own speed – in this case, reconnecting with the sounds that informed his musical development by marrying them with his own, current style.
The rest of the album concerns itself with Airhead’s other musical obsession – dance music. The clubbier moments on the album are perhaps the most thrilling, with Airhead offering mutant takes on techno, grime, and unsurprisingly dubstep, each underpinned by his concerns with sound sculpture. Fault Line is a grizzled take on four-to-the-floor, whilst Milkola Bottle offers the most straightforward club track on here. Pyramid Lake is perhaps the album’s highlight: it opens with a dubstep lurch, introducing reggae drum rolls and heavily processed vocal FX before morphing into a heavy, Pulse X style rave banger and then ending up back where it started. It’s mad, thrilling, and not really like much else out there. Airhead manages to move between these dancefloor moments and the quieter ones with ease, treating them as coming from the same place and belonging to his own sound palette – a balancing act that many other artists struggle with.
‘For Years’ isn’t really a game-changing record, but it’s good to see Airhead stepping out of the shadows, even if you don’t quite come away feeling like you know any more about him than when you started. That said, ‘For Years’ doesn’t seem like it was ever meant to be a statement record, a way to mark his grand entrance into the music scene proper. Instead, it’s a selection of music that’s very understated, often gorgeous, occasionally weird and sometimes just plain fantastic.