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.
As a member of Front Line Assembly (and its various off-shoots including successful world-beat/electronica act Delerium) during that project’s most well regarded and commercially successful era – not to mention his solo project Conjure One and studio work with Paradise Lost, Fear Factory and more recently Youth Code and Kanga – Rhys Fulber’s influence and profile amongst those who know can’t be overstated. Perhaps the most interesting thing then about his debut LP under his own name for Sonic Groove records is hearing the veteran artist/producer explore territory that hints at his broad catalogue of work without being specifically beholden to any one piece of it.
Broadly speaking the music on Your Dystopia, My Utopia falls into the rubric of industrialized-techno, although the album emphasizes texture and structure over dancefloor bangers. While rhythms and tempos are kept central to each composition, it’s Fulber’s sensibility as a programmer and articulate production style that define the record. “Limited Vision” has a straight 4/4 beat underneath most of it, but the essence of the track is in how grinding synths interact with the the vast, open reverbs that obscure the track’s sonic boundaries, hiding some sounds until they jump to the fore, and covering them as they retreat to the edges of the stereo spectrum again. Album highlight “My Church” invokes a technoid rhythm as its backbone before building a massive cathedral of organ and synth patches and portentous samples for a cinematic feel. Neither track feels like anything we’ve heard from Fulber before, but definitely bear his steady hand from the building blocks of sound design (some of which is contributed by Los Angeles synth guru Jeff Swearengin) through to final mix.
That’s not to say that the album suffers when it makes overt dancefloor bids though. Songs like “Truncheon” or “Anhedonia” have plenty of DJ appeal with their rapidly cycling basslines and tough, crunchy drums, but feature the same fine attention to detail as the rest of the record. The latter number is especially notable in how maximal it feels while working with a more limited structure, injecting a Gessafelstein-esque arrangement with a heft and coarseness that move it towards classic rhythmic noise.
Beyond the strong appeal it holds for simple repeat listening, Your Dystopia, My Utopia also acts as both evidence of Rhys Fulber’s technical proficiency, but also his oft overlooked skill as composer. For those who mostly know him via his extensive work as a remixer, collaborator or studio hand, it should go a ways to illuminating his auteurship; in presenting himself in a largely new way Fulber has made us appreciate him as an individual artist all the more. Recommended.
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.
In a recent interview with Bandcamp daily, Anders Karlsson noted that “I [Karlsson] like the sound of cheap hardware that many people would never use. I like bad-sounding digital effects, old spring reverbs that have a sound of their own, and semi-functional gear.” That preference has been pretty apparent to followers of his solo-project Celldöd, a name that has stood for rough, DIY-EBM since it first emerged in 2014. At the outset that emphasis on grittiness seemed like a reaction to the smoother direction his previous band The Pain Machinery had taken to body music on its final release, but with 2018’s Fragmenterade Minnen Celldöd sounds more fully realized as its own entity, complete with a distinct and recognizable production aesthetic.
While Celldöd’s hardware-based compositions – made via an array of classic drum machines and synths alongside cheap and salvaged gear – have always sounded somewhat lo-fi, the key to their success has been in how immediately Karlsson pinpoints a groove and then squeezes every ounce of energy out of it. Nearly every track on Fragmenterade Minnen introduces its bassline within seconds and then rides it out, ornamenting the framework with reverbs, delays and layers of recording dirt. Whether a down the pipe EBM number like “Vrider”, a double-time synthpunk workout like “Alla Har Fel” or a deliberately awkward minimalist composition like “Hotet Från Underjorden (Dub)”, it’s always the arrangement of synth bass and noisy hats and kicks that make up the body of the song. Karlsson knows how far to push each composition, and when to cut them off as their energy and momentum begins to flag, never letting anything become exhausted or played out.
The biggest departure apparent on the LP is the emphasis on Karlsson as vocalist. We know from his previous work that he’s more than a capable singer, but here he shrouds himself in effects and goes guttural with his delivery, grunting and yelping his way through each song. It’s a fitting style for him to take on for the material, and one that places his voice in the same category as the various acid squeaks and squelches and washes of static that make their way through the audio spectrum, a textural element rather than a melodic one. It speaks to Karlsson’s philosophy as a producer; as he slowly expands the palette of sounds available to Celldöd, he also takes care not to betray the sound he’s cultivated, aligning his new tools with his proven approach.
Hex Wolves Another Man Made Tragedy
DTH X CMP
The titles of Hex Wolves’ Another Man Made Tragedy and its tracks which refer to mining disasters seem well timed to the Don Blankenship campaign, and whether that’s intentional or not the LA producer’s techno compositions are as soiled as Blankenship’s soul. Though only three tracks long, Another Man Made Tragedy quickly establishes its own ethos and delivery. Alternately delivering rubbery bounce and high, insistent sine waves which at times connote the sensation of chewing tin foil, the rapid speed with with Hex Wolves’ tracks shuffle the focus of their component tracks adds another layer of disquiet to an already confrontational style. The breakish chaos of the first two tracks is brought to bear on closer “Survivor’s Remorse”, in which a robotic funk beat chugs through at a regimented pace, though it’s the tension of “Just An Insurance Write-Off” which remains after the EP ends. The contrast between its submerged beats and the far-off shrieks which could be emitting from a train derailment or the restless souls of dead miners is nothing short of unnerving.
Monolith Falling Dreams
Eric van Wonterghem’s Monolith has been a pretty constant fixture of the rhythmic noise scene for over two decades at this point, acting as a solo outlet for the producer between stints with Sonar, Absolute Body Control, and Insekt amongst others. Falling Dreams certainly speaks to van Wonterghem’s legacy in industrial circles via crunchy powernoise tracks like “Corpus” and “The Attack”, but also delves into some techno crossover sounds that fit very naturally within the project’s aesthetic. Numbers like “Sleeping Sun” and “High Carbon Steel” ease up on the saturation and distortion and focus more on big atmospheres and variations in rhythm programming, and even dashes of funk in their basslines. The two stylistic variations are kept distinct on a track by track basis, but occasionally come together in pleasing fashion: “Driving Blind” is built around techno minimalism and a a noisy soundset, and “Man Disconnected”‘s deep pulsing heart could hail easily hail from either genre. It’s not the first time Monolith has played with these ideas toghether, but in 2018 when more producers than ever are seeking to hybridize industrial and techno, it’s good to hear a practiced hand like van Wonterghem stir the mixture up.
One of the failings of the EBM revival of the mid-to-late aughts was certainly the narrow focus on a specific, eighties iteration of the sound. While certainly not universal, that adherence to the muscle n’ hate template had an air of the reactionary about it, a rejection of any stylistic developments, and specifically any that were seen as a dilution of pure, true school EBM. Consequently a lot of the colorful and interesting sounds of the genre’s early 90s period were overlooked by the neo-oldschool crowd, leaving them ripe to be picked up by enterprising acts seeking to expand the palette available to classically minded body music producers.
Enter Colombian act Struck 9, whose 2018 sophomore album Ritual Body Music certainly has some post-80s flair in terms of sound design and arrangement. While songs like the opening title track definitely rely on the classic punchy, syncopated basslines of trad-EBM, the energy and bounce with which they’re executed here is more reminiscent of early 90s output of acts like Orange Sector or Paranoid than say, DAF or Nitzer Ebb. At least some of that is also due to the sleek, digital texture of the programming, which emphasizes smoothly interlocked sequences of notes, allowing the uptempo synthlines of “Execute” and “Bodytemple” to push simple melodies along in tempo with the rhythm section.
It’s a formula that works well for Struck 9, but at times betrays some creative inertia. While no individual track has much of an issue in a vacuum, Ritual Body Music does suffer from some sameyness in style throughout, with songs that blur a bit in execution. This might be a function of the plain vocals, which while perfectly serviceable don’t offer many memorable hooks for the listener to latch onto. That said, when the band bring in some other stylistic elements the results are notable, as with the electro-industrial tropes that inform “Zero Day”, or the And One-esque electropop touches on political number “No Fracking U.S.A.”.
With the boom of retro-EBM in the rearview mirror, it’s pleasant to uncover an act like Struck 9 taking up the style in a way that doesn’t feel like the same old school ideas being regurgitated. When listened to in a single sitting not every second of Ritual Body Music will necessarily standout, but there are enough moments like the fist-pumping arrangement of “999mb” to mitigate those lulls. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the mood for some throwback sounds that aren’t just more of the same old.
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.
Would you believe that a collaboration between Tony Young of orchestral IDM project Autoclav1.1 and Andreas Davids of industrial/rhythmic noise act Xotox would result in an ambient record? Both acts are students of structure in their own way, with Young specializing in heady composition and Davids in sandpaper rough textural beats, so the idea of them entering the liquid realm of atmosphere and sound design devoid of traditional structures is a little odd. Then again, some of the fun of Natura Est’s debut is in hearing these two distinct artists subsume their individual artistic personalities in each imposing glacier of sound.
Given that Autoclav1.1 is already given to some level of abstraction, Natura Est is probably a bit closer to Young’s standard modus operandi than it is Davids’. That said, the album forgoes much of the semi-formalism of the former producer’s work, and wades into murkier waters. Massive washes of ambiance and slowly evolving shapes make up much of the sound design of the record, as individual tones emerge briefly only to be washed away in slow moving rivers of reverb and delay. Some of the glitches and long waves of of static that resolve on “Grey Skies” and “Black Town” come across as Davids’ work, although the latter track’s very distant drums suggest traditional dark ambient’s ritualism. That esoteric feeling is furthered on “Causatum”, where barely defined rhythms can be made out underneath the layers of deep rumbling bass, suggesting some hidden mechanism moving beyond our ability to perceive it.
That said, trying to figure out where each producer might have made their mark on these songs is a difficult proposition – the songs are so monolithic in nature that zooming in on any individual element loses perspective on the broader picture being painted. It’s more satisfying to turn up the volume and enjoy the subconscious and meditative aspects of the listening experience. In practice it’s good fodder for mental exercises, maintaining a focus and intensity that keep it from becoming background noise, but not intruding overly or being demanding of attention. Natura Est might not be what you expect from this particular meeting of the minds, but its an entrancing result nonetheless.
A live album from Haujobb is an enticing idea: moreso than many of their peers in the world of industrial, Dejan Samardzic and Daniel Myer have made efforts to make their live shows distinct from their albums. In practice that means trading a small amount of studio exactitude for dynamic live percussion, keys and vocals. The press release for Alive makes a point of noting how much of their catalogue the live document covers, but its value lies less in acting as a career retrospective and more as a snapshot of who the long-running act are in the second decade of the millennium.
Starting with 2011’s New World March the sound that Samardzic and Myer’s work has been placing more emphasis on rhythm and structure, and how percussion and sequencing fit together inside their high-sheen production aesthetic. Consequently the tracks from that album and its follow-up Blendwerk feel most potent in these recordings. The way “Machine Drum”‘s whirling string sample gives way to the workmanlike pulse of a kick drum and manually filtered synth sweeps as Myer lets loose vocally is instructive, bringing the song closer in line with slightly more recent numbers like “Meltdown” and “Input Error”. Those latter songs’ detuned analogue sounds remain fairly intact from their studio incarnations; understandable given how the project’s most recent recordings have likely influenced how they bring their music to the stage.
While it’s the recent material that feels most natural on Alive (check the slightly renovated but totally comfortable versions of “Crossfire”, “Dead Market” and “Lets Drop Bombs”) some of the classics benefit equally from the shift. Fan favourite “Anti/Matter”‘s speedy breaks are given a kosmische drum machine makeover and Myer going way over the top when called on to shout, injecting a different energy into a number that traditionally represents the group at their most precise and sleekly digital. Conversely, stone electro-industrial classic “Penetration” omits the rhythm track for a good portion of its run time, making the entrance of a motorik beat halfway through all the more impactful. Some selections (“Eye Over You”, “Dream Aid”, “Renegades of Noise”) aren’t especially enlivened by the translation to the stage, but are generally legacy numbers that don’t lose anything from being presented in their most familiar forms.
Like most live albums, Alive‘s primary appeal will be to those who are already familiar with the material, and wish to hear how songs new and old might sound in the more active and unpredictable live setting – check final track “Let’s Drop Errors” for an example of those latter qualities in action. Those same fans might however be surprised by exactly how much of Haujobb’s current goals and strategies are reflected in these recordings, and how it serves to illuminate the fluidity of an act who show no signs of slowing down creatively some 25 years since their formation.