On Nathan Fake's third album, the Norfolk, UK producer shows that he is not afraid to explore a bit of new territory, mainly by incorporating more nods to the bounce and swing of house music than ever before. Still, Steam Days does not present an entirely new Nathan Fake, as he does attempt to stay true to his established sound—one marked by triumphant melodies, bit-reduced/detuned synths, and touches from IDM's heyday—while also proving that he is not an artist who exists in a bubble.
Here's the good news: Steam Days does not come off as a forced or overreaching effort; Fake really does manage to widen his sonic and rhythmic palettes while still sounding like the producer who brought "The Sky Was Pink," "Outhouse," and, most recently (well, 2009), the fantastic Hard Islands mini-LP into the world. His established brand of soaring, pop-inflected techno can be heard most favorably on the opening "Paean" and the bouncing "Neketona," both of which introduce new bits of textures and movement in between the driving four-on-the-floor Fake has made his own over the years. On previous efforts, the occasional appearance of cuter or more playful tones would enter his productions, usually taking shape in the form of 8-bit synth sounds and miniature percussion. With the exception of "Glow Hole," Steam Days leaves these sounds out, existing in a much more serious sonic field and harkening back to the golden era of Warp Records, as songs like "Old Light" seem to recall Aphex Twin's more tender moments, while "Iceni Strings" (the album's lead single) and the immersively ambient "Rue" take clear cues from the analog gurgles and densely rendered pads of Boards of Canada.
Okay, so here's the bad news: it just doesn't all quite fit together. For the most part, the songs that make up Steam Days are interesting enough on their own, but when strung together, the LP has trouble pushing forward. The album's highlights are strong, but not necessarily exceptional, and with each track comes a different, and seemingly unrelated, slant. Unfortunately, this willingness to explore wholly different concepts on each track makes for a double-edged sword—Fake never gets lost in redundancy, but this comes at the cost of the album never landing upon a theme worth following.
Without question, Nathan Fake is still a sharp producer, and if Steam Days proves anything, it's that the dance-music vet is not short on ideas. What holds this album back is a lack of direction and the vision necessary to pull his intelligent, melodic techno into a new musical landscape.