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(Graveface; US: 26 May 2009; UK: 26 May 2009)
Granted, Black Moth Super Rainbow did not exactly reinvent the wheel with their 4th album, but, with Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT) behind the consoles, Eating Us is definitely the best-produced album yet released by the Pittsburgh collective. While the somewhat lo-fi aspect of their sound up to this point was a large part of their charm, little or nothing was lost in the transition to real studio recording.
The vocoder retains its sepia-toned ethereality and the gobs of synth distortion fill the same aural gaps they did on 2007’s Dandelion Gum, but the filters and effects no longer veer out of sight. It is their most accessible and linear album in terms of production and songwriting, though their surreal lyricism may “freak out the squares” as they were intended. For such a lofty, detached sound, Black Moth Super Rainbow actually feature some fairly bluesy lyrics, asking “Iron Lemonade” to “wash my friends away” and proclaiming they were “born in a world without sunshine” in the opening track. If this was a work of depression, depression has never been this much fun. Alan Ranta
As with Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport, Dan Deacon’s Bromst kept the album format’s partial exquisite corpse alive by a marathon methodology. Far from being diversified and regimented, Bromst is an album of beautiful consistency, transparently syncopated to machinal programming like it boiled down jouissance to a mathematical formula (with the exception of “Wet Wings”, which transforms a folk sample into a flock of migratory birds). Deacon even set up many of his tunes of assaultive glee to synch with a player piano. It’s no surprise that hipsters are beginning their backlash against Deacon, once their patron saint of juvenilia n’ whimsy. Bromst marches in defense of the loudness war, on what many fidelity snobs would dub “the wrong side”. However, the album’s authority is not solely in the massiveness of its sound, but in the richness of his melodies. Deacon emotes with the euphoric power chords of M83, arpeggiates with the manic chiptune splendor of Koji Kondo, xylophones like a wind-up monkey doll with a rainbow coming out its ass, and blurts glossolalic warped chants into the microphone with the pitch-bent sway of Kevin McCallister’s Talkboy.
Yet gripes about Deacon’s manchild persona should evaporate in those who sit down with the album and notice its complex interplay of broken nursery rhyme carnivale and momentously-timed explosions of synth-bliss pop rapture. Bromst is the first recorded instance of Deacon pouring his heart all over a record, the way he does in nearly every performance he has ever done in his last five years of consistent touring (“Hello, my ghost, I’m here / I’m Home” go the album’s opening lines). It’s an instance of transforming the pre-pubescent elation innate in discovery and novelty, always a transfixion of Deacon’s, into something that’s not onanistic (as it has been in the past with him), but actually transcendent. Timothy Gabriele
When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence
(Warp; US: 3 Mar 2009; UK: 2 Feb 2009)
Rather than falter under the weight of the grim, future-noir-esque implications suggested by an overt album title, Mark Pritchard’s efforts under his Harmonic 313 guise are astonishing. When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence finds Pritchard dabbling in volatile sonic alchemy, matching gritty and razor-sharp synthesizers against ludicrous bassweight for a techno-and-Total Recall-influenced tribute to Dabrye and J Dilla. A man of many faces (Global Communication, Reload, Jedi Knights, more), Pritchard comes off as a little scatterbrained for inviting Detroit emcees Phat Kat and Elzhi to spit on “Battlestar” (and later, Steve Spacek), but the rest of When Machines boasts such intricate design that a couple of forgettable guest verses matters not. Robust intro track “Dirtbox” surfaced in late 2008 as an appetite-whetting EP, but on When Machines it’s a thunderous, malevolent precursor to the onslaught that follows. Pritchard’s electro hip-hop quivers and quakes on this record, and pondering it again so late in the year has me re-evaluating my 2009 favorites (and 2080 predictions) entirely. Dominic Umile
Okay, I’ll admit it: listen to Atavism enough times, and those sharp digital pads start to sound like the Law & Order “doink doink” sound got a remix job. There’s no caveat of “but wait, come back” with this album. SND are harsh, minimal, sterile, and brutally uncompromising. The sonic palette on Atavism is, compared to other minimal techno records (even its siblings at Raster-Noton), shockingly limited. There are a few percussive sounds, and some (very) slowly morphing synth stabs, all definitely digital. In one fell swoop, SND undo generations of progress toward emulating “analog warmth” on computers, preferring instead to focus on cold processors. The untitled tracks bleed into one another easily; no one cut has a sonic signature that would greatly distance it from the herd. Fittingly for a comeback, Atavism is, even with its hour-long running time, a statement of purpose that’s free of fat. Fittingly for SND, there’s no grand ceremony behind Atavism. It is what it is, with bare-bones information in a brilliant bone-white package. In his full-length review of the record, Mike Newmark looked at Atavism as a study in how curiously “safe” computers are. And he’s right—SND is the kind of safe that makes your muscles clench. It’s inexplicable, but it’s also addicting. David Abravanel
Insides was one of 2009’s most pleasant surprises. Before this landmark album, Hopkins seemed content to use his classical piano training to color lengthy ambient soundscapes and easy listening chill compositions. I don’t know if his dog died last Christmas or what, but this album saw Hopkins step into the darkness and invest himself in sweeping, moody melodies underpinned by guttural bass and hints of unforeseen glitch.
Where his previous work seemed content to allow listeners to exist outside the music, Hopkins is incredibly elegant, moving, stirring, and introspective on Insides. It is all foreground listening, percolating IDM tempered with a classical style that allows itself room to breathe. Electronic music so often suffers under the crushing demand for immediate dance floor filler, but this album subtly sucks you into its drama and draws out your deepest reflection and contemplation, while still quenching your thirst for rumbling lower frequencies. Hopkins has now entered the prime of his career with this album. Alan Ranta
As the curtain draws on the first decade of the 2000s, locking it tight within the annals of history, it appears that dubstep has come out on top as the era’s most important electronic movement. It’s strange and maybe a little suspect—dubstep proper didn’t have much to it besides heavy bass and a slow pace, and it produced a lot of copycats whose mission, it seemed, was to zap the life out of UK 2-step and dance music in general. The ones who elevated it to something special were, in fact, those who 86ed most of the rules to pursue a singular ideal; two years ago, Burial’s Untrue hit new levels of bruising emotionality, and suddenly dubstep could make us cry. Now, the best electronic record of 2009 parallels the best electronic record of 2007, using dubstep reference points to build its own stunningly attractive environment in black and silver tendrils around us.
Love Is a Liability, the debut full-length from Brooklynite Drew Lustman, is a foxy world of fashion runways, photographers’ flashes, velvet ropes, and chiaroscuro lighting schemes, a vision of London dubstep refracted off the tiles of a private New York discotheque. It seems like it should have come with a $70 invitation. Milking his oblique production sense and state-of-the-art equipment for everything they’re worth, Lustman explores the peculiar depth in surface-level turn-ons. His computerized sounds exhale diamonds with each sigh (check the gorgeous Cuisinart-in-heaven whirring noises on “The Shape to Come”) and commingle with beat work rivaling 2562 in its poetic fluidity. The vocal snippets from Untrue return, in a sense, but here they burn with sexual energy: A looped “ahh” is spun into silk on “Winter Sole”, and phrases like “I want…” shoot straight for the pleasure receptors and ignite an erotic glow. They could be the ghosts of partygoers from the walls inside the Paradise Garage, coming out for one more dance under the hedonistic spell of FaltyDL’s lights and music. As the legacy of the New York club underground lives on, so may this album. Its most memorable word? “Forever.” When it reverberates through “Human Meadow”, it’s enough to send shivers down the spine. Mike Newmark