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Harley Streten is surely a man who has spent the last four years ignoring the doubtful, creeping whispers of the Curse of the Second Album. In 2012, under the now-household stage name Flume, Streten was responsible for producing one of the most seminal Australian electronic releases of the last decade. The self-titled Flume dominated Aussie sales charts, hitting number one for 2013 and still cracking the album charts in 2014, years after debut. Tracks littered the Hottest 100 and the album made massive waves overseas. From a bedroom in Sydney to headlining Coachella, this is one great example of how a massively successful album can propel a musician’s career skyward.
Now how the fuck does a 25 year-old solo producer follow that?
Whether it was because of the monumental first album or something went wrong in the kitchen but Flume’s second album Skin doesn’t quite deliver the cake.
Skin hit the shelves last Friday and was featured on triple j leading up to its release. Collaborators include Kučka, Kai, Vic Mensa, Love To, Vince Staples, Allan Kingdom, Little Dragon, AlunaGeorge, MNDR, Raekwon, and Beck. An impressive list to be sure, but you can imagine having Beck and a member of Wu-Tang on your ticket adds some pressure to an album.
With Skin, Streten aspired to create a multi-faceted album. It features his trademark wonky synths and hip-hop inspired beats, with the addition of some harder electro sonics, poppy vocals and a myriad of musical variation which the young producer dug. In his feature interview with triple j, Streten mentioned he wanted festival moments, club moments, vocal moments. Moments, moments, moments.
After a week of digestion, that is what this record comes down to. Moments, and the total experience suffers for it.
The two singles, Say It and Never Be Like You, feature incredible vocal performances from Tove Lo and Kai respectively; huge props to them. The songs are sure-fire chart-throbs bound for success, the classic Flume sound running through their veins. However, for all of Streten’s talk of experimentation, these two tracks (for most of the public, the first taste of the album) show little deviation from the formula. Yes, the crowd’s will go wild for Tove Lo’s high notes in Say It and the synth solo in Never Be Like You’s bridge is pretty terrific, yet these are moments within each song.
Streten redeems himself in a few of the instrumental tracks. The opener, Helix, builds with some grade-A arpeggiated synth porn. A floppy, grimy drop ushers in the latter half of the song, a definite club moment. Likewise, Free makes for a strong penultimate track on the record. This high-BPM instrumental reuses an arpeggiated synthesiser but for a progression this time, and when the drums kick in, the sounds get fat.
It will be interesting to see how these tracks fit into Flume’s live bill. His shows has taken some heavy criticism, but at least Streten now seems to have taken it to heart, more recently putting together specialised live mixes, dropping new tracks at Coachella and even learning to play the keyboard. Will his live show focus on vocalist-led crowd favourites or get dirty with tracks like Helix? Or will Flume find a middle-ground of his own invention? His Australian tour at the end of the year is arena-focused, not exactly petri-dishes for munters and beat-freaks which the Aussie festival circuit can be, so we will have to wait and see.
As for the rest of Skin, the rest of the stronger tracks are those with talented collaborators. Raekwon’s verse in You Know is absolutely fierce, and the record closes with Tiny Cities featuring a dreamy performance from the dreamy Beck. It finishes the album like a sunset to a day; warm, familiar and conclusive.
Kučka, a high-voltage Aussie who has been killing it lately, shines in both songs she features in, Numb & Getting Colder and Smoke and Retribution. Little Dragon’s track, Take a Chance is a swelling, controlled standout driven by tight, well placed snares and string chord synths.
Wall Fuck is a trippy, messy instrumental track. Ringing bass, short-looped Ahs and off-beat drum lines create…something. It seems like Streten was trying to combine too many ideas here.
I appreciate Streten’s vision with Skin. Innovation and genre-mixing often create longevity for a record. He did succeed in making a record which was interesting to sift through. The 16-track beast of an album will have something for everyone who digs some form of pop or electronica, and the bedroom producer is to be admired for that alone.
Similarly, Skin could serve as a gateway for pop listeners into the realms of harder electro, and the Australian scene could use an injection of fans into that genre at the moment. Moments of the album burn as brightly as flares; fans will undoubtedly crack a smile, involuntarily nod their head, or scream their lungs out at the walls of sounds, drops and vocal hits this record has to offer.
In its totality though, Skin fails to measure up. The Curse of the Second Album persists, and the weight of expectation seems to have overwhelmed Streten as it has so many other artists. Uncovering the sound nobody has found yet is arguably the most important facet of electronic music today, and the Flume sound has evolved, but not far enough. Whether it was Streten being too ambitious in his vision, or simply the magnitude of his first album, Flume’s second release has shot under the benchmark. Moments of strength, absolutely. A strong album? Sadly, no.