How Roly Porter is Pushing Dance Music Into A New Dimension

The Tri Angle Records artist’s “unknown space” adventuring new album, Third Law, is out today.

January 22, 2016

In the 1953 James Blish sci-fi novel Cities In Flight, a probe called the Object 4101-Alephnull is sent into space to investigate a parallel universe made entirely of antimatter. 4101 is the year of the probe’s launch and it’s also the name of the lead single from Third Law, the Tri Angle Records debut of London producer Roly Porter. Melding a science fiction film score aesthetic with ambient drones and pulsing club bass, Porter imagines the journey of that probe, evoking solar winds, radio emissions and alien horrors with his masterful sound design. Ideas of outer space thread through all of Porter’s solo work: 2011’s cinematic Aftertime album was inspired by the radio wave emissions that the planets of sci-fi classic Dune might hypothetically give out, while his 2013 LP The Life Cycle of a Massive Star rolls long waves of low frequency oscillators onto an ambient shoreline of dulcet tones. With Third Law, Porter wanted to push his sonic adventuring into what he calls the wilds of “unknown space." The result is as much inspired by the bleak, avant-garde scores of Bebe Barron and John Carpenter as by club noise acts such as Prurient and Haxan Cloak.

Porter began his career with the more earthly concerns of the dance hall, cutting his teeth as one half of Vex'd with fellow producer Jamie Teasdale, a pioneering Bristol-based dubstep duo that emerged in the mid-’00s on U.K. label Planet Mu. One of the enduring qualities of Vex’d’s 2005 debut album, Degenerate, is how attentively the album charts emotional highs and lows: frenetic deep bass and laser-precise beats are interspersed with meditative stretches of ambient tranquility, creating a sense of narrative. Degenerate turned the reggae-rooted dubstep genre on its head, and is widely acknowledged as a milestone for U.K. dance music. Despite the acclaim, the duo were conflicted on direction. By the time they finally released their second album Cloud Seed in 2010, they were both already at work on solo LPs, with Teasdale going on to establish himself as Kuedo. For his part, Porter distanced himself from Vex'd's sound palette, eschewing drum machines and synthesizers to compose entirely from sounds he designed himself.

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Though Third Law isn’t exactly a return to Porter’s club-based roots, one of its defining features is syncopated bitcrushed notes that border notions of percussion, which was largely absent from his two previous efforts. But instead of drums, he distorts bass notes into propulsive swells and blasts that bring to mind rockets firing into an starless abyss, before they dissolve into ambient apprehension. The album came to find a home on Tri Angle after he struck up a long correspondence with label boss Robin Carolan after the two met at a label showcase in Berlin. “Tri Angle just seemed like the perfect fit,” says Porter. “It’s that rare example of a label that has a really strong image, but is able to move across loads of genres.” Over a Skype call, The FADER spoke to the producer about the influence of science fiction and film scores on his work, the freedom of being solo, and Porter’s self-confessed “unnatural sense of rhythm.”

Is Third Law a concept album like your previous effort, Lifecycle of a Massive Star?

ROLY PORTER: Yes, it is, though maybe with not as literal a narrative. And I didn’t originally intend for it to be conceptual. After Life Cycle I just thought I couldn’t do another album based around a specific structure, so I tried to write some individual songs and have some fun. And after a few months of sort of wandering around, I found that I needed a concept and that attaching a narrative had become a central part of my process. That’s what I did for both Life Cycle and Aftertime, where I named each tune after the planets in Dune. That helped the tracks take on a sort of personality and gave the album a grander shape.

Third Law seems to travel toward a destination rather than describe what’s there.

Well, it is a journey album. Through its various phases, it charts a voyage, in my imagination at least, to the limits of known space, and then achieves release and relief upon exiting that known space.

It’s also a compositionally intricate album. “Blind Blackening” goes from these aural rips into almost celestial uplift. And then “High Places” begins, which is a lighter composition altogether. Are you guided by the sound or do you shape these sounds to fit a narrative that’s already there for you?

“Blind Blackening” took an unnecessarily long time. Compositionally, I was trying to marry all these disparate elements and make each track respond to one another. But I mainly designed the album the way I did because I’ve returned to experimenting with rhythm. I’m getting my pacing back, and bringing percussive ideas back into the music. But I also wanted to avoid genre and typical beats, I wanted to try and imagine those rhythmic and percussive ideas around movement. I was thinking about certain types of travel and how that would sound rhythmically as opposed to latching onto more traditional beat structures.

“I was thinking about certain types of travel and how that would sound rhythmically as opposed to latching onto more traditional beat structures.”—Roly Porter
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I couldn’t help but think of it as an evolutionary step in the definition of dance music. Do you see yourself as a satellite in the genre?

I hope so. I know from experimenting recently in various mixes, it’s definitely possible to portray [the album] in a dance floor environment—you just have to soften the more confusing rhythms with something a bit more straightforward. For example, the track “In Flight” is at 170 bpm, and although it’s got a slightly strange structure rhythmically, it could technically be played with jungle. Now, I’ve never been a great dancer, and I’m beginning to think that I have a particularly unnatural sense of rhythm, so to me “In Flight” is an exciting dancehall track. But I don’t think anyone else is going to see it that way [laughs].

How do you maintain your focus on duress as a quality of your work? It’s something I associate more with noise musicians, but your production is pretty crisp and meticulous. What has driven your interest in that cataclysmic sound that you’ve been developing?

Well, many noise albums are raw, emotive, snapshots of a process that are harsh to listen to, but embody that kind of energy and immediacy. My composition process is the agonizing opposite of that. I don’t know really if I’ll do it again, because this album took a very long time; it was kind of emotionally exhausting, and occupied so much of my brain and my life—it made socializing and family and everything quite difficult. I’m definitely interested in exploring that immediate noise punk energetic aesthetic, and finding some way of doing it within a classical soundscapes, adding to it the intricacy of the sound design. But I don’t think there’s a quick way to do it.

“I’m my own hard taskmaster, but I also knew I could make whatever I wished. The songs could sound how I wanted and be any length. While that may sound straightforward to people, you have to be reminded of what a privileged position it is.”—Roly Porter

Has scoring films had an influence on your work?

I don’t have a great amount of experience with scoring. It’s certainly something I’d like to carry on and pursue. There are good things that come from working on films when it comes to getting across simple emotive ideas and exploring emotional structures of music. The main influence it has had has been reinforcing that sense of absolute compositional freedom, self-confidence, and pleasure in my own work. When I was scoring Light Years [the 1960s French sci-fi animation film that Porter live-scored for the British Film Institude in 2014], it was a stressful but fascinating experience, but it also filled me with a sense of being completely free. So I went into making this album knowing that it was only for me. I think that’s why it took so long. I’m my own hard taskmaster, but I also knew I could make whatever I wished. The songs could sound how I wanted and be any length. It was all my decision. While that may sound straightforward to people, you have to be reminded of what a privileged position it is.

Because the album's so evocative, are working on a live show that will incorporate a heavy visual element?

Yeah, but it’s not going to be literally visual. I’m working with a friend with whom I’ve collaborated with before, and we’re going to try and create something that provides more like a physical impression of movement as opposed to actual video content. I think it’s going to be built by using light in the space as opposed to having a screen behind an artist. I’m not a massively dynamic performer, and the complexity of the album makes a live incarnation quite difficult. Each of the sounds on the album has taken me hours or days in the studio to create, and you can’t do that from scratch in a live environment. So it’s about converting it into a way that means that I can perform it, but that will also take the focus off the live act by converting the space into an expressive environment.

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Third Law is out now on Tri Angle Records.
How Roly Porter is Pushing Dance Music Into A New Dimension