Milwaukee's Lorn has graduated from Brainfeeder to Ninja Tune for his second LP, delivering an album with sharper edges and a clearer sonic focus than his debut, Nothing Else. Across 12 tracks of intense, twisted boom-bap, Lorn proves to have further developed his production abilities, but seems to have lost a bit of his sense for songcraft along the way, as only a handful of the efforts here are likely to stick with the listener once the LP is through.
To be fair, heavy-handed beats and visceral head-nodders have not been XLR8R's bread and butter as of late. Unfortunately, most outfits aligned with this sect of the "beat scene" have struggled to find boundaries worth pushing or fertile ground in which to grow; in the end, many seem content to continue rehashing tired patterns and trap their creativity in overworked clichés. That being said, Lorn has never had more than one foot in the beat scene—his affiliation is due in large part to his association with the Brainfeeder camp—as his work has often focused on the darker side of space-age, dubstep-related sounds. On Ask the Dust, it's hard to pinpoint exactly where Lorn is attempting to land between these two poles, as each song seems to look towards a slightly different spot on the spectrum which exists between the two production worlds. There are flecks of bombastic hip-hop on "Mercy" and "Chhurch," skitters of dubstep on "The Well," "Weigh Me Down," "I Better," and "Everything Is Violence," and even the faintest trap influence can be heard on tracks like "Ghosst" and "Diamond."
But no matter where these hybrids land with their rhythms, the tones are almost universally aggressive and sinister, fixated on the dark and evil sounds one can conjure from various synthesizers, samplers, and computers. This proves to be the album's main downfall. On the opening track, the presence of buzzing low end and crunchy bit reduction is front and center—exactly where it remains for much of Ask the Dust. In 2012, the fact of the matter is that these elements do not come across as scary, shocking, dramatic, or whatever unnerving feeling Lorn was attempting to conjure up on this LP. Instead, they are almost cheesy, and feel strangely over the top. It's almost like the feeling you get from watching a decade-old horror film—you can see how someone would have been scared by this in the past, but now, its ability to frighten has been rendered benign. In the current electronic music culture, what strikes listeners and catches them off guard is much more subtle, such as the alien-machine tones Blawan sometimes floats under his productions or the ghostly combination of atmospheres found on Andy Stott's masterpiece, Passed Me By. Judging from this LP, Lorn is either unaware or uninterested in such sonic subtleties.
There is nothing reprehensible about Ask the Dust's production quality per se—the textures here are no doubt the result of hours of knob turning and mouse clicking, and when compared to his earlier works, it does appear that Lorn has made considerable progress in regards to presenting more vivid sonic details in his work. It is what he decides to do with his production skills that is questionable, and although glimpses of solid tunes do show up every so often ("Weigh Me Down" takes an intriguing, soul-tinged path, while "Ghosst" and "Diamond" offer memorable synth leads), Ask the Dust is nonetheless a disappointment.