When Saints Go Machine is a Danish quartet gifted in soundtracking your night bus ride through urban wasteland. Thomas Skou’s video for the band’s new single “Fail Forever” is of a wiry hooded youngster who is caught in a frenzy of ‘going somewhere’ while being bound by the shadows of urban decay. He appears to be forever failing in his purpose—the feeling most of us get on those boozed-up, never-ending nocturnal trips home.
The band has drawn comparisons with Empire of the Sun. For what reason escapes me. They have none of the Australian duo’s penchant for glitter dust pomp and sun worship and all the UV-deprived angsty compulsion to make fellow miserabilists dance. That’s to say When Saints Go Machine’s debut EP, also titled Fail Forever, is a world away from the vapid electro-pop that has been gumming up the airwaves for the past three years. It is an accomplished effort that instils into techno the frailty of pop. Vocals, supplied in various registers by frontman and composer of all songs Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild, takes precedence as a versatile instrument in its own right.
On “Pinned”, Vonsild alludes to his ailing father, strapped to a hospital bed by various life-sustaining tubes. The musical accompaniment kinks and canters in a metallic funk in faint Quincy Jones fashion, matching in its ambiguity Vonsild’s falsetto, which is neither robotic nor wholly expressive. A song worthy of Depeche Mode, “Pinned” is like a dance track convulsed by an inchoate phase of humanising. Its sheer brilliance becomes more evident with each listen.
The title track is a similarly noteworthy slice of ‘humanised’ techno. On it, Vonsild counsels us to peel away that brave face we habitually present to the world and make peace with the fact that we are mere mortals with a propensity for failure and depression. This sentiment is etched into the song’s soundscape: the glitchy digital wizardry and marshal house beat symbolising our standardised specious ‘I’m fine’ face; the fleeting, lilting keyboard dance evoking the ephemeral moments when we let our guard down to reveal our true humanity. But there is more to the song’s drama than can be drawn from such a literal interpretation. Vonsild’s voice is a kind of avuncular baritone, its portentousness heightened by the use of multitrack recording. He paints with it as if in conversation with the mournful strings the band employs, making the song strangely compelling even without the added value of the lyrics.
Human imperfection again rears itself in “Pick Up Your Tears and Run”. With its swirling samples and Tourettes-like panoply of male voices, the song could have been plucked from some forgotten New Age-inclined a cappella group and then spliced and filtered using the bedroom recording equipment of hypnogogic pop artist Toro Y Moi. With lyrics like “Pick up your tears and run / I want something to kill me”, the song is undoubtedly ‘chillwave’ at a darker, come-down moment. When Saints Go Machine don’t seem to possess a weakness for trending microgenres. But they are au fait enough to make them their own if they so choose.
The band show no trouble in conjuring melodic purposefulness using their largely austere and monochrome sound palette. “You or the Gang” is darkly groovy, a little bit catchy and a tad surreal. It sounds like something Damon Albarn, Robert Miles, and Royksopp would have penned on an unlikely wet afternoon spent together.
Fail Forever is an admirable synthesis of the rigidities of dance music and the vicissitudes of pop. Like a night bus ride, it can be simultaneously mindless, frightful, and perversely beautiful.