It can be all too easy to misjudge an artist’s predilections. See, I had John Daly pegged as a temperate house guy, even though he clearly listens to a wider range of music. Even back in July, when the Irishman unveiled the Escape 12″ and his new techno project, The Smoke Clears, it seemed more sensible to think of it as a one-off — Daly’s chance to blow off steam after producing his Sunburst LP, perhaps. Who knew he had a whole album of the stuff percolating? In way though, Listen seems like a far more obvious attempt to loosen up. Its concept is simple: music made for home listeners, not DJs or dancers. True to form, the tempo is mostly glacial and 4/4 kicks are shelved. In a recent email, Daly explained to me that beyond the three- or four-minute mark, he thinks his tracks often get diluted, as more ideas and sounds pour in. “This is something I wanted to avoid on this record,” he said. Accordingly, the longest track clocks in at 4:37, and the palette is limited to stark, cold synths. Dub is also a constant presence, but not the tired, steely-chord template you might be used to; reverb is mostly applied to the track’s booming percs, rather than its icy melodies.
Imposing such heavy boundaries on oneself wouldn’t seem the most obvious way to forge a compelling album. And yet, Listen is as worthy of your time as any of 2012′s long-players — a testament to Daly’s talents. The key, it would seem, is his sheer ability to make similar sounds say different things. For example, opening track, “Listen,” is like watching a whale glide by: elegant and dignified on a massive scale. Similar synths infuse the beatless “Orbit,” yet now they feel desolate and lonely, like an astronaut adrift. Similarly, though “Trace” and “Only” share DNA, one feels alien and remote, the other intimate and human. While such similarities may seem a huge drawback, they ensure that when something different does come along, it’s thrown into sharp relief. We saw this earlier in the year with the pulsing bass of Voices From the Lake’s “S.T.” (VFTL Rework) in the middle of their eponymous album. In the case of Listen, these highlights — “Marine” and “Freefall” — also appear around halfway. In line with its title, the former has a faint, militant sense of menace, while the latter’s 303 sounds positively Goan, snaking psychedelically through chunky kicks.
Despite the foreign nature of the journey, however, Daly hasn’t been able to divorce himself from previous work altogether. Tracks such as “Cascade” and “Star Shine” are filled with the kind of rippling mellifluousness that makes his house tracks so distinctive. That said, if I didn’t know this was a John Daly album, they certainly wouldn’t make me twig to the fact. And perhaps this gets to the heart of why Listen is so engaging. Apart from being a superbly crafted album in its own right, it illuminates a man talented enough to step away from his pet field and succeed just as readily. A huge proportion of artists insist that they shouldn’t be pidgeon-holed, but Daly is one of the few I’ve heard convincingly back it up.