[2 May 2008]
Depending on how you say their name, Fuck Buttons sound like a simple R-rated phrase or an angry diatribe dished out by people who favor zippers. Similarly, depending on what part of a Fuck Buttons song you happen to chance upon, the electronic duo can be tender or tortuous, melodic or mind-meltingly loud. On record they deal in deliberate and often debilitating opposites; a kind of aural waterboarding. It’s a move that’s most obvious on “Bright Tomorrow”, the fifth track from their recently released debut album, Street Horrrsing. Building on a rising, blissful organ riff, the track eventually explodes into calculated dissonance and a cacophony of screams. It’s the belly of the beast, a digestive system regurgitating through the sound of distorted speakers. On record, it’s difficult not to recoil, especially when the screams kick in. Yet, there’s a belligerent beauty to it all, as if something noxious is being expunged or cleansed. Live, they up the ante somewhat, pushing the sonic envelope over the slight subtlety of their album. Then again, with a name like Fuck Buttons, did we really expect them to be subtle?
Fuck Buttons hail from Bristol, England, an area made famous by Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky. They are two unassuming guys—Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power—who formed the group in 2004 to create pain-inducing noise music. Over time, though, they became interested in disparity of sounds, and began mixing melodies into their droning attack. While there is a smattering of noise-band influences flying around—Black Dice Sunn o))) come to mind—the Buttons also incorporate a heady mix of electronic music and techno into their stormy sound.
Hung and Power walk onstage from the crowd with hoods pulled tightly over their heads. They immediately start up the sweet piano loop of “Sweet Love for Planet Earth”, which also opens their album. It’s a meditative misnomer. Soothing bells and swathes of sound swish around the room, providing the uninitiated with an aura of calm. Let’s hope they’re braced for the storm.
Their equipment is laid out on a picnic table, as if they’re at an electronic bake sale. Hung keeps his stuff in an open suitcase interconnected by fluorescent wires. It all looks very intricate, as if you need a doctoral degree just to figure things out. They use a laptop and various keyboards, plus cheap toy microphones. A floor tom comes into play on a couple of occasions as well, but for the most part their music is of the mechanical nature.
While the visual sensation of seeing two grown men hunched over their equipment, as though playing musical Battleships, isn’t terribly enthralling, the music they make, which flits from euphoric to ecstatic to downright ear-aching, makes up for their lack of stage presence. That said, there is some life to them. During the overtly percussive “Ribs Out”, Hung jumps down from the stage, microphone in hand, and proceeds to stomp around, screaming like a madman. They also shake their legs throughout, and thrust their heads forward with forceful power whenever a beat explodes or a snyth line reaches its crescendo. The crowd, on the other hand, is stuck. Even when Hung takes to the floor, dancing among us, no one moves. It’s difficult to discern whether they are awestruck or just confused.
For music that’s distinctly mechanical in its physical makeup (there’s no pause between songs, no gratuitous applause, and at set’s end, they simply cut the sound, say thank you, and scamper off), there is a definite human touch to the sounds they create. The pair consistently exchange knowing nods and quick glances, telegraphing the rise and fall of their music, making sure that, as sounds build and drums crash, everything hits simultaneously. Hung even switches leads and plugs around like an old-fashioned telephone operator, while Power often clamps his microphone between his teeth, freeing up both sets of hands for further sonic exploration.
Despite their moniker, the pair does push buttons—in both a physical and mental sense. They sustain their sonic attack far beyond its natural shelf life. Electronic drums and bass pulsate and build. White noise and animal sounds drop in and out. Oscillating keyboards rise to a crescendo, then crash. The vocals, if you can call them that, are screamed through a Fisher Price microphone and sound like Linda Blair in mid-exorcism. The lyrics are indecipherable—the duo could be reading a menu for all we know—and call to mind what Mark E. Smith might sound like if someone ever stole his pint: an incomprehensible mouth full of marbles spewed forth through lo-fi fuzz. Accumulatively, it is the sound of elevator music to hell.
The only misstep they make is on the Animal Collective-aping “Ribs Out”. The tribal track takes the Brooklyn collective’s eclectic percussive procession for a walk in the jungle. Musically, it’s their most minimalist moment: Hung hops into the crowd, caterwauling into his microphone while Power pounds on a lone floor tom. While it’s nice to see them step away from their electronic instrumentation, “Ribs Out” lacks something—tone or color, perhaps—that leaves it sounding like an angry drum-circle. Fortunately, it’s their shortest song.
Their best song, both at this show and on record, is “Bright Tomorrow”. Live, they give it a techno makeover, upping the percussive ante and drowning out its recorded counterpart’s melodic sensibility. Sometimes, though, I wish they would push things a bit more. Sustain the beat beyond the point of comprehension. Really take the musical aesthetic to the farthest, darkest reaches. Maybe there’s a sadistic side to me that I never knew about, but I find their dystopian take on electronic music thoroughly soothing. As for anyone who doesn’t like it, well, they can zip it.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/fuck-buttons/