Sydney’s golden streak has reached a crossroads. Thomas Stell is an intrinsically underground electronic music artist, but is signed to a major label and now has a mainstream audience. He seems ambivalent about that status, his second album ‘Sisyphus’ revealing a desire to retire.
Stell has always oscillated between the darkest deep house and festive future bass. He broke out impeccably with the breezy single ‘Tell Me’, featuring Nicole Millar, in 2014. Even now, Stell was mysterious: donning a gold mask, he joined a long line of electronic auteurs who hid their identities, from Detroit’s Underground Resistance to the UK enigma Burial – all about focusing on the music, but also undermining image-based marketing in the music industry.
For some acts, possibly starting with Daft Punk, this cult mystique became less a statement than a novelty. And in the digital age, such maneuvers generate conspiratorial cynicism – as in the case of German tech-house DJ/producer Claptone, who wearing a gilded plague doctor’s mask might be more people.
Super-private, Stell has managed to control perception. As with burial, there is little biographical information in circulation. He is known for his music – and impressive streaming statistics.
In 2018, Stell’s debut ‘SECT’, a triple j Feature Album, spawned the counter-culture pop song ‘Falling Out’, written with members of The Presets and DMA’S. He has since collaborated with The Presets on an EP, and in 2020 he launched the supergroup BRONSON with Seattle’s ODESZA, pushing a counter-EDM movement.
‘Sisyphus’ arrives five years after ‘SECT’, but strangely Stell released lead single ‘Touch’ 12 months ago – the groovy tech-house track, featuring Melbourne vocalist and triple j strain Rromarin. Although Stell has begun to show his face, ‘Sisyphus’ still feels anonymous, impersonal. It actually underlines the many contradictions in his career.
Stell titled ‘Sisyphus’ for a king in Greek mythology who, having angered Hades by cheating death twice, was forced to eternally roll a monolith up a hill as punishment – Sisyphean labor which is now colloquially associated with futility and absurdity. Opener ‘Vigil’, a driving club banger, carries the chorus “I can’t take it.”
The album was prompted by Stell’s pre-pandemic adventures in Berlin, famous for its hedonistic club subculture, photo-snapping banned in venues. It tells of a raving evening where Stell loses himself in communal and liberating dance, before returning to the lonely confines of his apartment.
Berlin is currently enduring hypergentrification – and amid the global discourse of decolonization, descendants of the city’s original Slavic inhabitants are demanding formal recognition of the indigenous population of Germany. And symbolically, ‘Sisyphus’ reveals a sonic tension not only between techno and commercial ‘EDM’, but also within techno, criticizing “business techno”.
Stell has previously recorded with ‘names’ such as the American alt-rapper K.Flay, Thelma Plum and Julia Stone. But on ‘Sisyphus’ the vocals are his own – sampled, processed, disguised – or Rromarin’s. Kult Kiss frontwoman and longtime Golden Features cohort, Rrommarin’s ethereal tones elevate the Burial-like garage of ‘Endit’. The album’s only buzzy ‘feature’ is Louisahhh, the American luminary of the Paris house scene, channeling (Miss) Kittin on ‘Vapid’, which is part electroclash, part 90s trance.
Not that there aren’t odd numbers on ‘Sisyphus’. Decadent single ‘Flesh’ opens The Presets’ warehouse electropop – and like ‘Touch’ should ignite the crowds at Stell’s upcoming arena shows. He hasn’t shied away from songs either – ‘Butch’, an indietronica ballad, is unusually vulnerable for him.
‘Sisyphus’ is transgressive, a product of Stell that resists crossover dictates or A&R influence. But Golden Features’ elusiveness means that any lyrics, references or narratives are ambiguous or fragmentary, ‘Sisyphus’ ultimately playing less like an album experience than a playlist for late night transports.
- Release date: July 7
- Record label: Warner Music Australia / Foreign Family Collective