The aesthetic of Cory You’s Vandalaze project, as communicated by album artwork and videos can make just as sharp a first impression as its music. While trying to describe to a friend the project’s style, channel-surfing across late 80s/early 90s kitsch, he asked if it fell into the vaporwave realm. “Yeah, but no,” I replied. “Less old Windows installations, more Rocko’s Modern Life“. The look and sound of Vandalaze’s latest once again rides the line between the exuberant and the grotesque, shuffling rubbery synths and jittery samples to a range of effects.
You’s deeply familiar with the history of post-industrial songwriting and production, as shown by the Covenant-style sequencing of “Icefade” and subtle but canny nods to early Puppy throughout Blab, but Vandalaze’s appeal lies in You’s ability to identify sounds and genres which have always been adjacent to that legacy, and bring them into a synth confluence which is far more open-ended. The bassline of “Fabrik Oblong” owes as much to Art of Noise as EBM, and the boisterous synth funk of “Omaha” comes across with wide-reaching technicolor appeal.
As with its predecessor, Big Diner, if Blab does have a failing it lies in You’s vocals, which often reach beyond his grasp, often sounding more like demo takes than official release material. That’s a shame, because it’s clear that You’s trying to leverage his voice as a key aspect to Vandalaze’s quirky ethos. At times this works admirably – the drippy distortion the vocals are pushed through on “Measure Of Time” fit the song’s mood well – but more often their production and delivery suffer in comparison to the capable instrumentation and production, as on the Max Headroom-like approach to “Wrong Channel” and the Jourgensen-style road-trip raconteurship of “Omaha”.
In the case of a project as dedicated to pure weirdness as Vandlaze (I wasn’t kidding about Rocko’s Modern Life: check the Nickelodeon-style “boi-yoings” mixed in with orch hits on “Wrong Channel”), it’s tough to say whether a sharper vocal delivery could run the risk of fouling what does work about Vandalaze. That question gets to the heart of what I’ve found so interesting about Vandalaze over the past few years: the spirit of You’s work is instantly recognizable, yet almost wholly unique in the contemporary synth world, and I want it to find the strange overlap of melt movie and after school special fans it deserves.
For a band so heavy on atmospherics (and whose name hints at being smudged and indistinct), Ash Code come across as clear as day on their third LP, Perspektive. Partially that’s a function of their often blunt and repeated lyrical declarations (“Give me my life back”, “There’s no mercy anymore”). But it’s also due to a canny sense for arrangement and production which delivers driving, full-impact post-punk instrumentation just as well as it does coldwave drama. The end result is as good a marker as any of how different sub-genres of dark music are intersecting in 2018.
Make no mistake, Perspektive is a dark and gloomy record, but the Italian trio behind it are able to bring to bear an unblinking and strident style of songwriting, buoyed by a knack for putting each piece’s weightiest passage front and center. Check the opening of “Disease”, with magisterial yet mournful synths set atop a foundation of alternately mechanical and echoing percussion. It’s the sort of synth tour de force one might expect from Ultravox at the height of their powers, yet Alessandro Belluccio’s tortured vocals quickly brush off external comparisons. The slinkier “Betrayed” isn’t nearly as portentous, but it pings a light synthpop melody off a trad post-punk bassline right off the bat to set up the structure Ash Code build upon for its remainder.
Despite the clarion punch of so many of Perspektive‘s highlights, it’s also a record full of the odd restraint and labyrinthine compositions which makes classic 80s coldwave so beguiling and inscrutable. The skittering beat of the title track draws in the listener but never settles into dancefloor simplicity, making the chiming refrains of Claudia Nottebella’s vocals all the more mocking and haunting. It’s catchy, it’s insistent, it’s a complete earworm, but it retains the sense of mystery that is central to music of this ilk.
Coldwave hasn’t sounded this rich and full-bodied since Die Selektion recently upped the ante (it’s perhaps no accident that Die Selektion’s Luca Gillian appears on the title track to offer backing vocals), and like that recordPerspektive has the core songwriting and gothic drama to justify its ambitious production style. Highly recommended.
Low Factor L’Oiseau du Désespoir
Young And Cold Records
The line between coldwave and minimal wave is one often obscured by synth pads and frost, and the latest LP from Montreal’s Low Factor shows not only how vague that border is, but also how easily it can be traversed to make a stylistic point. While never straying too far from a tersely programmed toolkit set out from its beginning, L’Oiseau du Désespoir manages to wring a balanced and engaging set of tunes, alternately stringent and florid.
L’Oiseau du Désespoir makes a good amount of hay from its outset as a stripped-down and decidedly mean sounding release. The often sparse and fatalistic arranging of drums and synth-bass which accompany Rubin’s vocals convey a Saturnian dissatisfaction which seems to be begging for a more expressive and cathartic vehicle (see the pensive “Waste Island” which acts as a representative introduction to the record). That hesitation isn’t necessarily a weakness, but rather acts as a telling damper on the pop melodies Low Factor are alternately exuberant about exploring and hesitant to show off.
It’s in the moments where L’Oiseau du Désespoir moves away from its melancholy moods that the kinetic potential of Low Factor’s sound is made apparent. Dancefloor-driven numbers like “Facedown” and “Souffrance Castel” (which offers up an especially fun, tropical outro) don’t vary so much from their moodier brethren in sound – the same thudding yet muffled kicks and piched up synth bass hold sway – only arrangement. It’s tempting to imagine a version of the record chock a block full of immediate bangers like these, but in all honesty their impact would be lost within identical company: their quick and desperate gallops full of vitae feel lively mostly in comparison to the record’s more taciturn numbers.
This manic back and forth betwixt unimpressed and over-stimulated synth numbers carries with it enough froth and tension to sustain an enjoyable (?) coldwave record, but the album’s final move, a decadent mix of off-tune synth melodies and warbling rhythmic elements, explodes the whole dialectic. “Terminal” tosses a barrage of off-kilter horns and synths at the listener which are simultaneously more expressive yet also more hamstrung than anything else on L’Oiseau du Désespoir. Self-defeat or savvy triumph? It’s up to you.
True-schoolers need not fear: the title of Horror Vacui’s third record doesn’t portend a pivot to softer synth melodies and pastel croon vocals. Nope, Italy’s crusty deathrock troops are keeping things right in their wheelhouse (wheelcrypt?) with New Wave Of Fear: smoky guitars still hang above churning drums while Koppa bellows like a wounded animal. It’s a formula which has worked well for the five piece since 2012, and having reached the near Platonic ideal of the intersection of goth and punk, there’s no reason to alter it drastically.
The few distinctions between their latest effort and In Darkness You Will Feel Alright and Return Of The Empire are subtle: there’s perhaps a bit more reverb on the guitar lines and vocals, and the second wave goth rock genome the group have always kept in the mix is perhaps somewhat sublimated, taking a secondary role to the more blustery and swaggering brand of deathrock with which Horror Vacui ally themselves. Perhaps more significant is the shift away from explicitly political lyrics to a more insular and lamenting tone; the social realities giving rise to the anguish spelled out literally could perhaps be inferred, but that seems a stretch. A rare exception to the bleak mood is “Forward”, which takes a page from peace punk revivalists like Spectres both melodically and philosophically.
Musically, deathrock is sometimes torn betwixt its desire for atmosphere and the lure of speedy punk breakdowns. It’s a tension bands have been toying with since at least TSOL, and at times Horror Vacui’s reach exceeds their grasp: the abrupt tempo changes in “Behind” are (I think) meant to underscore the tune’s pathos but just end up causing havoc. Thankfully, things finish off with a great one two punch which cinches that aforementioned binary. Penultimate number “Don’t Dance With Me” is an insistent groover set with caustic solipsism, which segues perfectly into the miserable waltz of “Upside Down”.
Three albums in, Horror Vacui know their audience, know their sound, and know how to deliver the latter to the former. Deathrock may be something of a formalist exercise so many years after its inception, but with craftspeople as skilled as Horror Vacui taking it up it’s very hard to complain about that.
Sashcloth and Axes M.A.R.K. -13
While catching Sashcloth and Axes at this year’s Verboden festival, I was initially struck by the aplomb with which the California based one-man act was balancing noise and melody in his set. The distortion and density with which Richard Douglas’ material was delivered was a nice counterpart to the synth melodies and catchy rhythms which were also shaken in. I might have been missing the forest for the trees, though, as proper listens of his new LP M.A.R.K. -13 reveals how much of his style of synthpunk is rooted in EBM rhythms, some of which are shared with fellow new-school mutants like High-Functioning Flesh, going back to the genre’s most minimal roots.
The repetitive simplicity of opener “Hardware” is something of a feint, designed to prepare you for the phased synth sound which acts as a guiding thread through much of the record, but bereft of the stacks of drum fills and noise-blasted vocals which adorn much of M.A.R.K. -13‘s body. Once through the gates, though, Douglas is off and running pell-mell through an amusement park loaded with punchy body music rhythms and garish synth excess. Tracks like “A.I. 32” and “Breakdown” are build on rock-solid tempos which offer enough propulsion for the former’s sampledelica and the latter’s floorpunching vitriol to liftoff.
The pairing of simple and raw programming with barked vocals Sashcloth and Axes showcases might have some folks thinking of the likes of Spit Mask, but for my money the quirky stylings of Kangarot are a closer comparison. “Mind Waste” kicks along with a spritely and almost funky bassline, kicked off by simply programmed fills, but punctuated by Douglas’ guttural moaning the whole affair becomes woozy and disorienting. For all its lo-fi engineering, M.A.R.K. -13 displays an omnivorous appetite for EBM, funk, noise, and all points between.
The line between “synthpunk” and “roots EBM” is a blurry one to be certain, and likely has more currency with regards to personal histories and interests in music rather than any claim of objective aesthetics. Regardless of genre, Sashcloth and Axes’ brutal yet undeniably fun tour of the noisy electronics carnival hits the mark at the levels of both the dancefloor and the primal id.
Discussions of post-punk (including those native to this site) often speak of its mood as if there’s a direct corollary between it and a certain type or style of instrumentation. Is it “dour”? Well, then of course we’d be talking about slow, low-key bass guitar heavy music. Is it “anxious”? Then we must be in the sort of up-tempo, groove and jagged guitar territory which lights up dance floors every few years. The latest from Chicago’s Ganser throws all of that out the window. Odd Talk has moods, to be certain – it’s a frustrated record, an uneasy record – but it reaches them with clashes in sound and an almost pastiche like approach seemingly designed to keep the listener on edge.
Some of the above restlessness in instrumentation and feel can perhaps be explained when the influence of original no wave on Ganser is considered, both musically and spiritually. Guitar and bass rarely speak the same language let alone move in the same direction on Odd Talk, and the results are disquieting from the start. It’s often left to the vocals, traded between Alicia Gaines and Nadia Garofolo to guide the tracks, and they’re rarely heading anywhere comforting. “Don’t disappoint, don’t overdo, don’t die, like, really die” Garofolo demands of herself in opening track “Comet”‘s personal reflection.
Brief interstitial pieces of music, some sampled (the bossa nova-type rhythm at the end of “YES NO”), some originally composed (the gentle synth refrain which opens and closes “Revel”), offer respite from the oppressive and clattering sound Ganser pursue, but that’s short-lived. The churning and borderline atonal fretwork of “PSY OPS” certainly feels like the musical equivalent of its namesake. A more permanent resolution comes right at the end, in the form of an out of left field shoegaze number, “Touch Insensitive”. The regretful and mournful lyrics which make up much of the rest of Odd Talk are still in place, but clad in Medicine-like garb some degree of succour is finally reached.
Their first full-length after two EPs, Odd Talk is far more fragmented and discordant in its delivery than Ganser’s preceding work. Ironically, that sense of fragmentation and difficulty gives the group a much firmer identity. Regardless of its apparently perpetual state of unease, the experimentation of the record’s construction give Ganser a new purpose and intensity.
The exact line separating death industrial from pure noise can be difficult to ascertain, especially when the former grows particularly dense and overwhelming. It’s not the most empirical metric, but there’s an underlying mood, part sardonic, part misanthropic, which at least for me, characterizes death industrial in this regard. Whether that takes the form of a record’s historical or philosophical framing or is just an unquantifiable meanness, the sense of control and drive (even if ultimately futile) which characterizes death industrial endures even amidst densely layered cacophony. That malevolent spirit serves Norway’s Dødsmaskin in good stead on their third LP, keeping all of Fiende‘s unearthly noise in uncanny order.
Dødsmaskin’s sound is churning, machine-like, and relentless; fitting given their moniker. Beyond the more classical machines of death industrial of all stripes has been concerned with for years, Fiende is apparently a meditation on the threat of strong AI, but the squalling throes of “Blod Fra Helvete” seem to speak more to primal faults in humanity which predate such contemporary anxieties (I can’t speak to the substance of brief spoken passages). A recurring motif throughout the record are drones, blasts of static, and subterranean pads seemingly being left free to roam but offset by rhythmic industrialized clatter. Whether through mixing techniques or arrhythmic quirks, these beats often feel out of phase with the rest of the composition, producing that aforementioned tension between chaos and structure. Are the klaxons which scream out over “Syndrom” emerging forms of AI attempting to get out from the shackles of their programming at the rhythmic base of the track? What’s the connection between the cricket-like pulses of “Den Nye Døden” and the power noise-styled pummeling which occupies so much of its mix? Damned if I can tell, but it’s all effectively unsettling.
I’d like to make some hay of the fact that Dødsmaskin are releasing “Fiende” on Cyclic Law after having their previous LP issued by Malignant, but I’m not exactly sure what this signifies. While the latter certainly seems an environment more in keeping with the duo’s harsh and unremitting style, could there be some hidden flourish to Fiende‘s style or construction which made Cyclic Law’s dark ambient ethos a more welcoming haven? If so, I’ve been unable to detect it. Even when closer “Posthum” brings some lamenting harmonic pads into the fold in the record’s closing minutes, crackling distortion ultimately prevails, effacing the briefest moments of calm into ash.
When you’re dealing with someone with as many irons in the fire as Henrikk Nordvargr Bjorkk, the distinction between one project and another can sometimes be a matter of degrees. Shifting between EBM, death industrial, martial industrial, dark ambient, and all points between, Bjorkk always has an operation at hand to suit whichever theme or mode strikes his fancy at a moment’s notice. But even within the aegis of his eponymous project, which has been his most prolific since the turn of the millennium, subtle changes can have a big impact. Metempsychosis‘ instrumentation creates a wholly different mood than that of his previous release, albeit one no less weighty.
The record takes its name from the notion of the transmigration of the soul into a new bodily form, but as the accompanying press release is quick to point out, Bjorkk is investigating this notion from the perspective of souls choosing to “freely roam between the dimensions and to cling on to any form of life at will,” a far more sinister theme than traditional reincarnation. In keeping with that malevolence, Metempsychosis feels much more brusque and intrusive than The Secret Barbarous Names, a record much more in line with the ritual ambient side of Bjorkk’s occult explorations. While plenty of Metempsychosis is made up of ambient passages punctuated with brief blasts of otherworldly noise and proximal acoustics – “At The Crossroads Of Immortality” certainly sounds as much like a soul passing through the astral plane searching for a new instantiation of itself as music can – the focus on steady and often unadorned rhythms gives the record a sense of biting meanness. The strident bass guitar of highlight track “Salve Teragmon” steadily stabs outward while industrial blasts and Bjorkk’s incantations ride the rhythm in a fashion that’s almost as catchy as it is intimidating. On the more sludgy and low-tempo “First East” the bass serves more as, well, a base for the slowly accumulating storm of noise through which Bjorkk and Trepaneringsritualen’s Thomas Martin Ekelund weave their spite.
I first listened to Metempsychosis while rereading a novel in part about an immortal spirit who moves from body to body, consuming the essences of those he occupies. The happenstance of such a specific theme appearing in two very different forms caught me off guard, and the hypnotic nature of the record’s rhythms did little to offset that sense of the uncanny. Then again, I suppose that’s as good an analogy for Nordvargr as any: come for the expertly arranged death industrial, stay for the creeping sense of metaphysical dread.
The slow boil of Wire Spine’s development as a live act prior to their first proper release can’t help but shape my reception of Bury Me Here. Sure, there was a quick batch of demos (since withdrawn), but it’s almost wholly via touring that Robert Katerwol and Jesi Tekahionwake built anticipation for this assemblage of murky synths and beats. That sense of anticipation oddly ports over to the music itself; while Wire Spine have certainly grown into a more focused and at times violent act since their earliest gigs, Bury Me Here is the work of a band who can get as much from holding back as they can from erupting.
Just about every song is punctuated by an instrumental interlude, and in this way Katerwol and Tekahionwake find an economic means of doling out the impact of their atmospheric but still punchy sound. The transition out of the deep, nautical ambiance of “Between The Sleep” frames the straightforward rhythmic unfolding of “Burn You”. Zapton’s steady repetition of that track’s title feels more striking than had it left to follow up the fiercer squall of opening track “Soylent” on its own. Similarly, the glittering slime of “Silent Signals”‘ vocal distortion and synth-punk rhythm feels all the more grimy for leaping out between low drones.
The coarse palette of synth smears, blasts, and gurgles which Wire Spine share with Katerwol’s initial project Weird Candle still holds sway on Bury Me Here, but it’s now a stretch to keep thinking of Wire Spine as a Weird Candle side project. Yes, the synths are a tad icier and the drums held to mid-tempo, but the largest distinction lies in Tekahionwake’s development as a vocalist and frontwoman. She’s equally comfortable with a raspy bark as with a monotone croon (or eerie children’s primer singsong on “Naomi”), and the blend of intensity and disaffection she’s been able to convey onstage over the past year or so ports over clearly to record.
For all of its savvy construction and delivery, Bury Me Here retains all of the lo-fi charms of Wire Spine’s live presentation. The odd corner being tidied up doesn’t detract from the rough fun of the project, and the band’s found a way to let each track shine without overproducing them. Bury Me Here well captures the energy of one of Vancouver’s most important acts going right now, and puts their best foot forward to the rest of the world.
Bay Area duo Vore Aurora’s debut has come just at the right time. Stand alone tracks have been appearing on their Bandcamp for a couple of years, but the full unveiling of their sound comes at a point where darkwave’s popularity and presence seems to be on the rise, and the smokey pads and wary vocals which make up much of Eidolon fit in quite well with that milieu. That’s not to say that Vore Aurora feel rote or generic, just the opposite: the time leading up to the LP’s release has been spent crafting a distinct sound which has immediate appeal but plenty of personality as well.
Soft and enveloping synths make up the bulk of Vore Aurora’s presentation – sometimes shifting in slow ebbs and flows, sometimes sharply serving melodies – along with vocals from A’Lizzabeth Barrett. The band’s blend of sounds bears the influence of classic acts but feels salient to the waves of new dark synth acts we’re tracking, a versatility reflected in its parallel club and nighttime headphone appeals. The icy minimalism of “Lunar Distance” carries something of vintage Kirlian Camera, but with a more modern and downtempo execution. And as atmospheric and brooding as things can get, there’s often a crispness to the swing and arrangement of numbers which reaches well beyond darkwave’s misty shores. The sharp rhythmic work of “Hollow Point” brings to mind the integration of breaks into electro-industrial Haujobb achieved on Polarity, for instance.
If the album’s synths lend Vore Aurora their flexibility, Barrett’s vocals sell their commitment. Stoic and even-keeled, she’s often singing from a position of vigilance and experience. The source of the anxiety which pervades “Slate” isn’t ever made quite apparent, but Barrett’s circular intonation and fractured images sell the gravity of things. Eidolon is given a clear sense of direction and purpose through Barrett’s earthy and forceful tones.
The crop of darkwave that’s marked early 2018 doesn’t necessarily come with a unified ethos or spin on the style. It could simply be chalked up to younger acts recognizing the range of possibilities and styles the genre can link to. If that’s the case, Vore Aurora are ahead of the game with Eidolon, which features a confident sense of self and identity alongside a strong clutch of tunes.