The Range

March 22, 2016

Many electronic artists are discarding the album format, when it might be more relevant than ever. In the streaming era, identities and narratives are submerged – even lost. Yet an ‘LP’ tells a story. Ironically, The Range (aka James Hinton) has made an album that counters that very cultural disconnection.

Hailing from rural Pennsylvania, Hilton studied physics at the Ivy League Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island – music a diversion. In 2013 the bedroom producer – into jungle, grime, Bmore and footwork – debuted with Nonfiction, generating blog buzz. Now in New York, he’s signed to the UK label Domino, which, while traditionally ‘indie’, has nurtured electronic acts like Four Tet, Jon Hopkins and Dan Deacon. Domino virtually has its own IDM aesthetic – as Warp did in the ’90s. Hinton is a perfect recruit, his latest foray, the cerebral Potential, sharing Hopkins’ cinematics and Deacon’s modish hybridisation (cue: the lead single Florida).

Potential isn’t necessarily groundbreaking musically – Hinton creates a post-dubstep ambitronica descended from Brian Eno, Underworld and Burial – but the concept is. Ahead of Nonfiction, Hinton turned to YouTube as a source for vocal samples. But, with Potential, that process of curation (hipster for ‘A&R’) comes to the fore.

The singers and MCs Hinton selected are all unknown – some struggling artists, others hobbyists. The algorithms buff intentionally went for those with nominal views, not viral sensations. Oddly, the MCs are mostly British (Kruddy Zak, heard on Copper Wire, uploaded his freestyle years ago at 13). This contrasts the usual practice of studio-types reaching out to ‘names’ for exxy ‘features’ (mind, Hinton recently produced Aristophanes, Grimes’ Taiwanese rapper pal). Hinton’s approach is the digital equivalent of, if not using found sound, then field recordings. Hinton typically composed around the samples, rather than manipulating them to fit – though, being a texturalist, he does play with pitch, for example.

As such, Potential’s sub-theme is context. What is seemingly random or fragmentary isn’t. The vocalists’ emotional stories intertwine with Hinton’s own. Postmodern, like. However, Hinton has averted any charges of co-option or exploitation – unlike Moby, when he raided ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s African-American archives for Play. Hinton contacted the performers to clear samples and arrange royalties. Plus, he has an affirming documentary, Superimpose, named for a track, with director Daniel Kaufman, profiling Potential’s fascinating contributors.

On the surprisingly hooky opener Regular, UK MC SdotStar’s musing is looped over abstract footwork: “Right now I don’t have a back-up plan for if I don’t make it/But even if… /I’ll just decide to move on to something bigger and better.” Hinton has edited him so it sounds like a stream dropping out – but it’s actually a symbolic sonic ellipsis.

Regular condenses Potential’s moods – determination, despair, resilience… Florida is global breakbeat – its meta R&B singing from Kai’s charmingly soulful a cappella cover of Ariana Grande’s 2013 You’ll Never Know. (Hinton is surely into his alt-R&B, especially Drake’s illwave, going by Falling Out Of Phase.) More dramatic is Five Four, the bleak pathos of rappers Ophqi and Superior Though laid over piano chords.

Potential is predominantly downtempo, but No Loss builds from spare, subliminal electronica – the vocals spectrally choral – into a stormy club banger with acid wobble and oceanic beats. Consider this potential fulfilled.

‘Potential’ is out March 25th, grab a copy here.