The hedonistic imperative is a book by David Pearce, whose aim is to “eradicate suffering in all sentient life”. The book inspired Barker’s debut album, Utility. The Ostgut Ton artist and Leisure System co-creator had already hinted at a new direction in his sound with the startling Debiasing EP and now reaches new heights on the full-length format.
The equation between pleasure-seeking and clubbing comes as no surprise. We are all familiar with the feeling of ecstatic freedom experienced on the dancefloor, our bodies pervaded by the Dionysian impulses synced with the relentless and liberating thump of kick drums, snares and hi-hats. We are probably less familiar with unorthodox ways to confer a musical shape to such equation.
Barker accepts the challenge and gives us an album that turns the concept of utility inside-out. There is no booming techno to be found here. No hard-hitting kick drums, no relentless percussions, no thuds and clangs associated with the trademark Berghain sound.
Utilitarian DJ tools are replaced with shimmering excursions into no-kick-drums synth territories. It’s not irony, but an attempt to widen our perspective on what dance music may be.
Utility draws heavily on abstract and decontextualized trance synth stabs, on ambient suspended atmospheres, and on dub womb-like immersivity. Sure, Barker is not the only one embracing this mindset in recent times; yet he manages to sound like no one else. His take on trance call to Lorenzo Senni mind, but the Italian’s glacial HD aesthetic is avoided by Barker’s somehow organic textures; weightless grime comes close, but whereas it often sounds asphyxial and/or stripped down, Utility is bright and bristles with nuanced details; the spirit of Basic Channel at their most abstract also lingers, yet again Barker’s manages to avoid their austerity.
These compositions are based on clean textures and detailed layering of sounds, spotlighting the intricate rhythms and the interplay between synths and space in the tracks. Though this it’s clearly machine music – the titles themselves bear references to machine-implemented hedonism – the album has an inherent organic warmth, and this apparent contradiction only adds to Utility’s allure.
One can be enchanted by the swirling synths of “Poseman”, or by the deep, smooth and sensual “Gradients of bliss”. There is sedated-yet-palpable, envisioned-but-not-experienced trance euphoria in “Hedonic treadmill” and in the title track. Both make you want to float rather than jump, and it is almost possible to fill the blank space in the tracks with imaginary drum patterns. The only diverging moment is saved for the conclusion, as “Die-hard of the Darwinian order” leans on smoky slow-mo industrial vibes. It’s both the most percussive and the most somber track, which gently escorts the listener to the end of this astonishing debut album.
Barker is a sorcerer, an alchemist who materializes new elements fusing what’s already familiar.
Naming his record Utility but making the opposite of Dj tools, he invites us to creatively deploy it as such. Whether you take it as a lush soundtrack for deep listening or as a creative tool for the dancefloor, Utility is as enthralling as they come.