Matt “Lone” Cutler’s heart belongs to hip hop. It’s easy to forget this given how the British producer only started to attract critical notice after switching from the post-J Dilla instrumentals of his early albums to a style that had more in common with house and rave music. The transition wasn’t terribly unnatural given that his sonic trademark was rich synth chords, a sound rare in hip hop but prevalent in dance. He kept those intact; he just switched up the rhythm and instantly went from generic beatmaker to underground dance hero, producing one of 2012’s best electronic albums in Galaxy Garden.
Reality Testing is his follow-up, and remarkably, it makes no attempt to refine or outdo Galaxy Garden. It’s less ambitious and more playful, incorporating hip hop influences in equal measure to house influences. Cutler’s cited Madlib and Boards of Canada as influences; though Galaxy Garden carried traces of those artists’ respective hip hop and ambient styles, Reality Testing sounds pretty much exactly like the midpoint between those two.
The result isn’t anywhere near as entertaining or evocative as Galaxy Garden. With the exception of the relentless “Airglow Fires,” the dance-oriented tracks are nothing special compared to the ones on any of his previous albums. A lot of them seem to be based on the same formula he’s used for all his dance tracks, except with a rather dull constant 4/4 kick rather than the skittering rhythms that define his best work. (He’s even using the same chords.) They don’t sound like attempts to refine or replicate his past successes; they’re just not that well-made.
The hip-hop tracks don’t fare much better. Though “Cutched Under” and “2 is 8” both rank among Lone’s best productions, the other tracks don’t retain much of the his personality and end up sounding more like the generic bedroom “beats” that dominate much of SoundCloud. As much as Lone loves hip hop, he’s frankly a better dance producer, and it’s a shame he didn’t play more to his strengths here. If the dance tracks were better, his beats might be more forgivable.
I believe Reality Testing chiefly serves as an establishment of Lone’s independence from musical trends or critical expectation. If so, it’s an admirable gesture. Critical acclaim can sometimes scare artists into simply refining their sound rather than expanding on it or exploring new directions, and it’s thus a relief to see Lone continuing to play by his own rules. But after listening to Reality Testing, I find myself wishing he’d just played it safe.