Dance music that makes you want to kill
Forget for a moment that Iceland’s wealth has evaporated like steam from a geyser. For before the crisis, GusGus represented everything about the country for someone who’s never visited it: rigorous experimenters conveying the kind of abject isolation that presents itself in a vast windswept landscape like their own. Yet, rather refreshingly, they did it with all the conscious whimsy of Kraftwerk, rather than the suicidal intensity of Sigur Rós.
Lazily lumped in with the Sugarcubes, they were actually the Velvet Underground had it been fronted by DJ Tiesto. Their sonic renditions made you dance without assaulting your body into motion, and they fulfilled the cliché of Scandinavian pop to the hilt by leaving plenty of echoing crevasses for you to lose yourself in. Their later work tended to render glacial progressions, Steve Reich-style: no matter how pumped up with adrenaline and whatever else you were, you were party to a slow-burning bash because the night was Arctic long. In other words, their music provided you with the opposite of instant gratification. But like good, long-lasting sex, the reward would be immeasurable.
When we first heard of them in 1995, GusGus were a whopping collective of 12 with silly names like President Bongo (aka Stephan Stephensen). Their first intention, spearheaded by filmmakers Stefán Árni and Siggi Kjartansson, was to make weird films. But the entry of DJ Herb Legowitz and programmer Biggi Thórarinsson, as well as singer/songwriters Daníel Ágúst, Hafdís Huld, and Magnús Jónsson into the group steered this veritable nucleus of creativity into music-making too. Before long GusGus were indie darlings of British 4AD label, releasing debut LP, Polydistortion (1997), which had all the ghoulish restraint of Portishead’s Dummy and wry sample selection of Coldcut. To boot, vocalists Agust and Kjartansson spun the album with an American-accented indifference that made them the envy of the effortlessly cool. After the critical success of Polydistortion, members like Agust and Emilíana Torrini went on to enjoy fairly notable solo careers. Torrini, for one, is best known for her contribution to the soundtrack of (what else?) Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Since Polydistortion, GusGus have shrunk to a quarter of their original size and scaled everything from the orgiastic dance-pop of This is Normal (1999), which sounds like MGMT and Boards of Canada shaken up in a centrifuge, to stripped-down old school techno/house of 2000’s GusGus Vs T. World and 2002’s Attention.
If This is Normal was about enjoying one’s youth, belt loosened and buttons undone, then 24/7, released on Kompakt, continues GusGus’ trek down the path of self-imposed austerity—fitting for the times—and introspection. Gone is the aural imagery of the aurora borealis that wafts through the tinny beats of GusGus Vs T. World and the eclecticism that polyrhythms add to the otherwise minimalist textures of Attention. The squelchy beats of 24/7, courtesy of the group’s newfangled Doepfer A-100, go nigh unadorned and unresolved and are matched by the morose tenderness of vocalist Agust (now back with the group)—a tenderness mirrored by the incomplete female silhouette on the album’s cover. At a cool 120 bpm, it’s hard to tell whether we are invited to dance or to sympathise. But given the aerated mien of the album, in which loneliness is wormed into us like a slug in the brain, it would seem that opting for the latter is the equivalent of pounding a punch bag. Suffice to say, euphoria is not the aim of the dance. Yet, given the goofiness of GusGus’ press photos and website, one can’t help but wonder whether the trio are taking the listener on a ride with its feigned seriousness. But then again, maybe they’re just mightily repressed.
The lead single, “Add This Song”, appears initially to be a dig at the digital generation where adding songs and friends are what we do. But really Agust (who from now on I take as representing the group), in his incorporeal way, is appealing to his object of affection with a lyrical lodestone that he hopes will bring them together. Failing that, Agust makes the ironic suggestion that the song itself is saviour enough. “Add This Song” has all the sprayed atmospherics of a night with Sasha, which come and go like the wind to reveal the track’s trusty Motorik. When Agust stops singing not quite halfway through, there is a minor deconstruction of the main motif into a collage of bleeping computer game-style soundbites. The track then continues on for another four minutes, burrowing the same territory like Sisyphus with the addition of a farting metronomic pulse, before it peters away its ten-minute existence. There are no climaxes, only a meandering musical trip for the semiconscious. But it’s the most positive track on 24/7.
The opening “Thin Ice” summons imaginings of GusGus materialising from a river of dry ice with a collective zombie stare. It appeals at once to our escapist urge to nightclub as well as Agust’s faux-suicidal wish to flee the abject emptiness of his life. Luckily for sanity’s sake, its dank, ricocheting synths eventually graduate to a tiptoeing techno beat doused in warped metallic effects that shun Agust’s egocentrism for the mutual experience of a full-fledged club mix.
We are then driven back to the maniacal darkness with “Hateful”, in which Agust acerbically taunts his heartbreaker: “I want to hurt you / And I want to make you suffer / Rewrite my history / Take the air I breathe / I’ll hit you where it hurts you / if you force me to my knees / Tearing down my future / Living in the past / If you can’t tolerate my kind / You can kiss my fucking ass”. A harmless schoolboy vendetta, you might think, if it weren’t for Agust’s nothing-more-to-lose steely delivery, coupled with foreboding bowel-shaking rumbles of synthesizer. It’s hard not to imagine Agust garbed in a trenchcoat when he spits out the words “I fight fire with fire when I’m in this state / If I can’t find love, I guess I’ll hate”.
“On the Job” is introduced by rubbery synths that sound like they’re being emitted from inside a Bouncy Castle. Agust appears to do a piss-take rendition of Steve Strange from Visage as he intones with a veneer of spitefulness about working 24/7 because “I want to make you happy cos I like you a lot / I know it’s kind of tacky but I like you a lot”. As in most other tracks on 24/7, Agust makes his point and exits before the song reaches halfway. Like a palette cleanser, all we’re left with is a squelchy 4/4 beat that’s too sluggish to move to, yet too utilitarian to contemplate.
And just to enunciate that Agust’s soul has been enervated by all this hurt and disappointment, we have a sulking remix of Finnish musician Jimi Tenor’s “Take Me Baby”. In this rendition, Tenor himself sings in an exaggerated deep-throated robotic register: “Take me baby, take me now / Take me to the edge of explosion / Love me baby, love me now / Love me on our way to the darkside”. It’s like GusGus are making an ironic bid for some loving, even though they are incapable of feeling.
The weakest track, “Bremen Cowboy”, is merely a droning soundscape of viscous synthesizers, roving echo-chamber effects, computer game squeaks and squawks. It is the closest thing to a dyed-in-the-wool dance number, but given all the songs before it, it comes off pointless if not downright boring. It is nevertheless fitting to place it before “Add This Song”, the last track. Of course “Add This Song” is a false island of hedonistic hope after all the dissecting of the costs of love, because once the lights come on in the club and the song’s ended, it’s back to facing the lonely walls of your mind.
Warts and all, 24/7 marks GusGus at a level of maturity that allows them to shun the sonic pyrotechnics that have charmed dance outfits across Europe, while communicating more. And with its brutal honesty, the album’s a knowing “fuck you” to those who think they can escape through house and techno travesties of their lives—economic crises no exception.
// Notes from the Road
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