Griffin James might seem an unlikely auteur of lo-fi indie rock. Better known as Francis Inferno Orchestra, the Melbourne-born house and disco producer was being hailed as “one of the saviors of Australian dance music” in the early 2010s, while still barely in his twenties; James’s career as a globe-trotting DJ moved him first to London and then Berlin. But his inclinations have long ranged beyond the dance floor, from a 2017 ambient and new-age album under the name Veranda Culture to the psychedelic expanse of a 2021 collaborative EP with Canadian DJ and producer Yu Su. Now based in Los Angeles, James has a monthly Dublab radio show where he rummages pretty deep into the underground rock stacks: Here, have Fennesz’s Junior Boys remix, as a treat.

Early Grave, James’s debut as Sans Merit, plays like an intoxicating love letter to the types of scrappy, eccentric records that the late BBC radio DJ John Peel might have championed. Recorded with live instruments and budget gear, sometimes in bedrooms and closets, the 13-track, 43-minute set rifles expertly through murky post-punk, glistening dream pop, and scruffy indie rock, with touches of sample-happy musique concrète. For all the potential pitfalls that come with such well-trodden territory, it appears that James’ far-flung musical background has served him well. Arriving with little press push via Zen 2000, a small L.A. label co-founded by one of the creative forces behind Brooklyn dance imprint Let’s Play House, the album is also a potent exercise in mystique. Lyrics, when present, are often cryptic or undecipherable; lonesome, fragmentary hooks pile up and then dissolve into unpredictable between-song transitions. But the shadows fall in all the right places. This is ramshackle gloom that carries the rousing charge of personal epiphany.

Whatever James’ self-imposed analog restrictions, he brings an immersive level of detail to these enigmatic sketches. His vocals, at this point, are still as gawky as they are gothy, but the tape hiss, bird calls, and synth pads on album opener “Friends Won’t Kick” suggest an ambient track in jangle-pop clothing. Another round of ethereal synths meets chintzy beats, ominous bass, gossamer lead-guitar tendrils, chugging strums, and other unidentifiable noises on the next track, “Human in Age,” creating an atmosphere that’s far seedier than the Modern Lovers’ Route 128 when James moans about “drivin’ round with my radio on.” The first video, for “Weathered Men,” folds together eight-bit bleeps, celestial sighs, and multiple layers of frosty guitars as James hints at the inevitability of decay in low, stentorian tones over martial drums: “I forget it again and again,” he sings, but all together it’s askew enough to stick with you. Much of what James intones on later track “Heaven’s Gate” is lost in a dense shoegaze fog that could rival Deerhunter or Yo La Tengo.

Early Grave is equally beguiling when James steps away from the mic. “Pill Nye” is triumphant, synth-kissed indie rock that just happens to be instrumental. The crumbling space-station architecture of “Rasslin” gives way to a delicate keyboard melody that you could imagine Damon Albarn crooning his eyes out over on Blur’s 13. Especially intriguing is “Gentle, Caring (& The Murmurings of Geoffrey Baron),” where spoken-word snippets—alternately menacing and serene—float amid a soundscape that’s half hellfire, half choir of angels; this one ultimately lands somewhere between the nonlinear explorations of L’Rain and Spirit of the Beehive’s paranoid pastiche. Wordless finale “Third Wicket” posits what it might be like if the Durutti Column soundtracked a spaghetti Western.

Obviously, there’s plenty of precedent for this stuff, and Early Grave could easily be written off as record-collector rock without much of its own to say. And Avalon Emerson has already made the year’s best pivot from left-field beatmaker to dream-pop frontperson. But the highs are so many, and so high—see also when James gamely shouts a “hey!” as the new-wave swell of “Maniac” crests—that this inaugural outing from Sans Merit feels like a keeper. For all the comparisons to be made, it’ll likely remind you most of your own cherished lesser-knowns: the short, bright flames that tend to get left out when forming a consensus on decade lists or squinting at A-listers’ album credits. For me, here, that’s the shoestring melancholy of American Wrestlers, or the hazy introspection of Shocking Pinks. Whatever you might think of when you imagine a DJ going rock, this ain’t it: Australia’s dance-music savior gives one hell of a toast to the might-have-beens and never-weres.