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RL Grime - Nova Music Album Reviews

Henry Steinway’s second full-length largely abandons the cool-kid stylistic tics of his debut for something bigger, brighter, and wholly anonymous.

Even considering the trend-hopping world of dance music, Henry Steinway’s career so far has been hard to parse. The 27-year-old producer cut his teeth earlier in the decade with big-room bangers under the Clockwork alias before switching to his current RL Grime moniker; after shaking off his bass-face past with the High Beams EP for Fools Gold in 2013, he released his debut LP Void under the umbrella of California’s woozy, slightly off-kilter WeDidIt collective. Spanning jungle-inspired breakbeats and brittle, cavernous techno, the album contained few true revelations when it came to the type of sounds Steinway was exploring—but there was a level of competence on display that suggested, with a little ingenuity and maturation of style, he could bring a darker and more complex sound to the festival-tent audience he’s since courted.

If Steinway still possesses promise as a producer, it seems we’re going to wait a little longer to see him deliver on it: his second full-length, Nova, largely abandons the cool-kid stylistic tics of Void for something bigger, brighter, and wholly anonymous. It’s loaded with guests, from the increasingly ubiquitous Ty Dolla Sign and Miguel to Chief Keef and songwriter-of-the-moment Julia Michaels; the music backing said guests is appropriately glossy and bombastic, possessing all the subtlety of a thousand confetti cannons. If Void was reaching for stylistic smarts, Nova sets its sights for the highest rafters in the biggest arenas possible. It’s big music, with gaping synth storms and mountain-flattening beats sprawled across its 15 tracks.

The sonic makeup of Nova is split between nasty bass workouts and straightforward pop, but Steinway seems incapable of distinguishing himself as a producer in either mode. The skyscraping throb of “Light Me Up” could’ve come from any EDM mega-producer over the last decade, and it technically did; the song was repurposed from an unused demo from Diplo and Skrillex’s Jack Ü project passed along to Steinway for a spit-shined finish. Play the bleeping, bruising electro of “Pressure” for any Electric Daisy enthusiast Folgers Challenge-style, and they’re likely to mistake it for, say, the searing tang of Alexander Ridha’s Boys Noize project—who, coincidentally, assisted with some analog-synth sounds for the track.

Collaboration is nothing new in dance culture, and even when taking into account the shadowy-but-common practice of ghostwriting in the genre’s upper echelons, it’s far from a scandalized convention—but these by-committee moments on Nova only further the theory that Steinway’s still in search of his sound. He tries his hand at the booming, mainstream-made 2-step sound Skrillex’s recently dabbled in on “Shoulda,” and crashes through the industrial grind of “Era” with a hair-whipping drop that feels as migraine-inducing as it does dated; “UCLA” transitions from a palm-muted guitar bridge to a stomping chorus with a charisma-free anti-hook from rapper 24hrs. As the credits roll on the celestial, M83-aping theatrics of closing track “Atoms,” you might find yourself catching your breath after trying to chase down whatever overarching mood Nova is trying to cast.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Nova’s brightest moment is also its most straightforward: the anthemic “I Wanna Know,” assisted by a potent vocal turn from Daya. You might recognize her from the Chainsmokers’ perfectly fine “Don’t Let Me Down,” and, for better and worse, “I Wanna Know” sounds like it could’ve easily come from the pop pariahs’ songbook, with jackpot synths yo-yoing on the chorus and effervescent drums splashing against its backdrop. Like so much satisfying, EDM-influenced pop music from the last several years, it sounds tailor-made for hearing in an open field, swaying to it in a sea of bodies before turning to your friend and asking, “Who made that song?” They probably won’t know, and until Steinway finds his sound and sticks to it, that question will likely remain unanswered.

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