When your correspondent was just a boy, like many youngsters he was taken by his parents to a circus. To be honest, it was a bit weird. The lion tamer was a source of anxiety, fearful as we were that he was about to be eaten alive at any moment. The jugglers were nothing new. The prancing ponies were more of a girlie thing, of no interest to a rambunctious young lad. The clowns, meanwhile, were plain terrifying.
But the tightrope walker. Now, that was more like it. A mis-step either side and this fella faced certain death, but – sure-footed and confident – he strode out onto that cord, seemingly miles above the ground, performed a few fancy tricks, and made it safely to the other side. Hurrah!
With his debut album, Raffertie – aka Benjamin Stefanski – is much like that intrepid tightrope walker. On the one hand, the London-based producer/vocalist ploughs a similar terrain to the likes of James Blake and The XX – lovelorn, melodic, heartfelt electronica. On the other, he harbours a more adventurous side, mining hip-hop-inflected beats and experimental electronic textures to produce something more altogether out-there. Thus, a wrong step in either direction and he risks disaster. On one side lurks sub-Blake, troubadour-with-a-synth pastiche; on the other, a million other has-beens and never-weres making weirdo electronica listened to by all of three people. Thankfully for Raffertie, he assuredly negotiates this hazardous high wire, for Sleep Of Reason is a confident, assured and mostly downright thrilling debut, marrying romantic melodies and experimental urges with aplomb.
Of the more forlorn, vocal-led tracks, the utterly heartbroken-sounding ‘Rain’ stands out. It’s a stunning and stately song, introduced by a desolate guitar motif and vinyl crackle, before an understated beat kicks in, accompanied by Raffertie’s crestfallen vocals, the singer sounding bereft as he declares: “It’s time for goodbye”. ‘Touching’ is almost as good, Raffertie repeatedly pleading “When will we touch?/I can’t breathe” over a driving breakbeat and otherworldly synth stabs. ‘Trust’ is up there too, building upon a humming keyboard line and more lovelorn vocals from Stefanski, this time duetting with London vocalist Yadi, whose beguiling contributions elevate the song into the realms of the sublime.
On the other side of the coin we have the frankly amazing single ‘Build Me Up’, an audacious piece of work which – with its stuttering, stop-start beat matched by swathes of fuzzy, bass synth that drop in and out of earshot and Raffertie’s equally elusive vocals – sounds like the type of thing Prince might come up with, were he on ketamine. And from another planet. ‘Gagging Order’ is a tour-de-force of production, featuring a repeating, machine-gun beat motif, pizzicato descending piano chords and Raffertie’s cut-up vocals. ‘One Track Mind’ is addictive, all loping breakbeat, insidious syncopated synth line and whomping sub-bass, while darker tones are introduced on the likes of ‘Window Out’, with its stabs of minor key piano and restless beat, recalling the work of Lorn on Warp Records. ‘Principle Action’, meanwhile, finds the middle ground between Leftfield and Yeasayer in its vaguely afro-beat flavour, with a wordless vocal chant forming the chorus.
The closing pairing of songs sees the album out on a bombastic note: the delicate twinkle of ‘Black Rainbow’ concludes with an unexpectedly fizzing lead guitar line, while ‘Back Of The Line’ is an epic closer, all choral vocal harmonies, thumping beats and an ominous, wordless chorus hook, along with more searing guitar and Raffertie’s distorted vocals.
Those who like lyrics to actually say something might be disappointed by Raffertie’s approach, which sees simple phrases or a handful of lines repeated (which, to be fair, is surely deliberate, making the vocals just another instrument in the sonic palette). Similarly, for pure hedonists who just want to lose their shit to some banging tunes, the producer’s focus on emotional catharsis might jar. For the lover of adventurous pop and electronica, however, this will be honey for the soul. So forget circuses and tightrope walkers: Sleep Of Reason is where the real thrills are.