Formed in Seattle in 2010, experimental electronic act Darto have spent years carving themselves a niche in the musical underground. Their music, while always interesting, isn’t always completely accessible; that said, somewhere within its darkness – for those able to invest the time – haunting songs eventually emerge. Don’t expect big hooks, though, since Darto are all about the overall mood. On their 2018 EP ‘Fundamental Slime’ (recorded by the legendary Steve Fisk), the songs take many cues from the darker and artier side of the late 70s – a period after Roxy Music had all but abandoned art for pop sheen and Ultravox were not the worldwide hit makers known to millions, but a Roxy/Eno obsessed synth band.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this EP upon first listen is its variety of voices. Although the material was written as a collective, a decision was made that all band members should each take a turn in a lead vocal role. Naturally, ‘Slime’ is not ‘Wings At The Speed of Sound’… The lead single ‘Brotherhood’ suggests Darto are more commercial than they actually are. The melodic root has a mechanised coldness, but also a strong appeal for synth pop fans as repetitive beats pump the heart of a solid three and a half minutes. The drums are rigid, like those from the best NEU! material and the synth bass equally mechanical, while the voice presents a spoken accompaniment. After giving this a minute to settle in, squirly saxophones drop in and old, while an even colder keyboard sound fills space with a very detached melody. With elements of the most melodic Krautrock mixing with neo-synth pop, this track certainly grows after a few plays and should very much appeal to those who like pre-Midge Ure Ultravox and Barry Adamson.
Just as ‘Brotherhood’ set up the EP as being of interest to those who love solid synth based sounds, ‘Totally’ turns everything upon its head with a lo-fi track that could be an entirely different band. Taking the basis of a melody that might fill a slow number by Queens of The Stone Age, the band sets about making something relatively dreary seem even darker by the use of vocal effects and echoes, while a minimal instrumentation makes the tune particularly haunting. The use of drones midway increases the unease without actually building upon any musical ideas that are already in place, eventually having more in common with dark, neo-gothic alt-folk of Wickerbird than any of their previously shown retro influences. On first listen, it feels almost too self-involved to be interesting, but buried deep within, that cold melody eventually wins out.
Moving into Persona, an almost inhuman voice joins a soft and tinkling arrangement that finds a space within the best alt-electronica. The repeated descending scale is lovely, adding something light to the otherwise dark atomsphere. Wheezing saxophones suggest a late night malaise and a stately bass punctuates something that would otherwise be quite ambient. It has a lot in common with ‘Totally’, but at the same time seems further removed, like a Tindersticks interlude, before the pulsing, synth-based ‘Everyday Actor’ closes everything with a mixture of female voices and a musical backdrop that – at least to begin with – borrows heavily from 80s Tangerine Dream. At the point you feel you’ve heard all the track has to offer, the key changes, the beats intensify and arty saxophones paint jarring musical shapes. Absorbing those into the original melody, the close of the number is full-blooded – perhaps even the EP’s best moment. It’s got a bit of everything: an unbending love for retro electronica, an arty instrumental break and an otherworldly sense of melody. By the time you’ve factored in Candace’s very natural vocal – something perfectly suited to the music, even if technically it isn’t a world-class performance – it gives the most encompassing look into Darto’s mixed bag of talents.
This EP is interesting. It’s not all enjoyable, but it’s often quirky and always seems to come from the heart, whatever the style. It probably ought to be approached with caution, mind…unless you have a record collection that centres around John Foxx and very early Ultravox, a bit of song-oriented Eno and/or something by Current 94. ‘Fundamental Slime’ isn’t every day listening, but for those who like things that sound reasonably detached, it’s worth investigation.