For several years, we've known Raffertie as the name behind a range of timely club tunes; his releases have crossed an admirable array of respectable labels, including Planet Mu, Special Branch, Black Acre, and current home Ninja Tune. Still, even as he was building this respectable discography, it was hard to pin down exactly who Raffertie was. Build Me Up, the leading single and EP from Sleep of Reason, changed that, as it pulled back the UK producer's veil of relative anonymity and presented a voice and a face. This often difficult (and sometimes ill-advised) transition—from producer to songwriter, from beatsmith to vocalist, from persona to ego—is one that inherently reveals a lot about a musician. Raffertie has crossed this divide with aplomb.
Stylistically, though we've seen Raffertie experiment with different sounds before, Sleep of Reason marks a stark divergence from his previous expositions. The grittiness present in his prior work is still there, but it's more of a logical accent to the dark air that hangs over the record—the music is more songwriter mournful than dancefloor baleful. Slowly decaying textures and icy whispers of processed vocals borrow a page from the obvious comparisons—James Blake and Burial—but the result is a far cry from derivative.
If anything, the album's main shortcoming is that this new sound's range doesn't quite support a full-length. The top half of Sleep of Reason feels out the limits of the template, while the bottom half comes across like the sketches that gave way to those more refined moments. For instance, "Known" starts promisingly with an ominously droning string bass and sparse textural flourishes before an arpeggio line breaks through the fog. Unfortunately, the composition builds and drops new elements before they have a chance to evolve into something grander, and the intoned vocals are a little too muddy to carry much weight. "Trust," on the other hand, wears much more on the surface; the vocals are front and center, and the track is built upon a slowly plodding beat. Here, the songwriting feels somewhat crude, especially with its nigh-sophomoric lyrics—"if someone told me this was it/if someone told me who to kiss."
That said, these missteps are ultimately evidence of a nascent, developing aesthetic, as opposed to a misguided explorative phase. "Build Me Up" is eminently fresh, with a backswung pop hook built around the familiar absent thud of ducking compression as layered vocal chords ebb in the background; it pulls from a myriad of inspirational sources, but still stands on its own. Similarly, "Rain" starts off with lonely sustained guitars, sounding not too far from The xx, but Raffertie's take grows more soulful with a swelling of vocal counterpoint and harmony.
On the whole, Raffertie uses his voice to great effect on Sleep of Reason, on occasion even pulling a single line for a sample. "Gagging Order" offers a prime example of this technique, and also happens to be one of the more dynamically arranged tracks on the album. It begins with a minimal hook of rolling hi-hats and a simple piano progression, but heavy bass gradually comes in, the piano part blooms, and the song evolves into a minor epic—for a track running just under four minutes in length, it features a range of novel ideas.
Sleep of Reason is an ambitious effort, and one that presents a distinct statement. Raffertie by and large stays out of the way of his songwriting, and opts for subtlety over bombast—an asset that eludes many songwriters.