Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.
As in his work with Robyn, Tophat’s specialty is sleek, extended compositions that hide their seams, even as they meander and pool into ambience. Part I opens with the 14-minute “Intro,” a low, slow-building track bookended by medieval-sounding whistles; the beat doesn’t come to stay until two songs later. Vocals surface here and there, as if wandering from room to room at an enormous nightclub. The cheekily titled “Hedonism M.C. Robyn” features little more than some backing vocals, though she’s still unmistakable. There’s a good deal of variety for anyone motivated to find it: a section within “Hedonism” that sounds like ’90s video game soundtrack; acid-house tweaks on “Acid Samba” and “Memento Mori”; the flamenco-style guitars that surface in “Dusk to Dawn (Acoustic Edit Version)” and much later on “Solitude.”
“Vivid Imaginations” and “Tears of Illuminations” are highlights of Part I, working twitchy Balearic beats towards Italo-disco. Part II, the most compelling and active section, begins with a run of features from Swedish pop singers Noomi and Lune, as well as producers Axel Boman and Kleerup. Frothy synth and sub bass on the final version of the title track make the kinship with “Beach2k20” clear. But the spacey minimalism of “Pleiades” recedes to the background. Mainstream dance music is beset by expressionless, interchangeable vocal performances; once you’re familiar with how skillfully Tophat handles the real thing, it’s harder to settle for synthetic flute and chime.
Dusk to Dawn has moments of real drama and surprise, as when a klaxon-like siren cuts sharply through interstellar glitter on Part III’s “Thoth,” or when the AI voice of “Solitude” poses the alarming question, “Why even wear a heart/When you could store it in a chest freezer?” But seemingly every interesting transformation is counterbalanced by slow changes, like the glacial “Indecision.” The final effect can be tastefully listenable, like a boutique hotel soundtrack; a hipper chain could probably play the whole thing in the lobby. It’s not so important to remember everything about a long night, but too many of these tracks vanish without a trace.