"Lost in Time"
There’s a sense of familiarity surrounding the release of this debut album from Toronto-based quartet Azari & III. (That would be Dinamo Azari and his posse of III: Alixander III, Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full.) First of all, there’s that cover art of a female hand clutching a phallic skyscraper. If you’re a fan of bad rock music, you’ll know that image is a direct swipe of the cover art from the Velvet Underground’s disregarded album Squeeze, released in 1973. There was an album after Loaded, you may ask? Yes. After Lou Reed left the band, the replacement for John Cale, Doug Yule, carried on the Velvet’s moniker for one last album. But I’m tramping a little too far afield because Azari & III sound nothing like VU. They might appropriate the cover art image of a particular album with a bad rep (I haven’t heard it, but Squeeze is known as being such a bad record that Velvet purists like to pretend it didn’t happen), but that’s as far as any comparisons you want to make will go. Instead, Azari & III want to party like it is some point in the mid-‘80s, when house was still pure in Chicago and techno was knocking on the doorstep in Detroit. And you may have heard this album, or heard about this album, somewhere before. It was actually released in 2011 on the new Loose Lips label, which is actually a label fronted by the UK-based Machine Management, re-released in Great Britain on Island earlier this year and is now getting (unbelievably) its first unveiling in North America on Dim Mak Records, a record label whose very first release was a hardcore punk album. Sort of a weird circle of a route to get into the public’s hands, but, for the most part, there’s a lot to really love about this club-baiting record.
I’m going to jump into the particulars of what makes this a very good album: the instrumentals (or mostly instrumentals). I have nothing against Azari and his group, but the singing at times comes off as a little weak and ordinary. I hear a little Stevie Wonder in the vocals for opening cut “Into the Night”, but they don’t carry the heft that Wonder would. It’s like a carbon copy replication of the original, but here you can see the tiny imperfections that render it as a flawed approximation. I have the same qualms about “Reckless (With Your Love)”, the album’s second song. While the likes of Pitchfork have already gushed that this is “by far the greatest song Azari & III have produced,” and not to step on the toes of the lauded online music institution (who was really on the ball and got a copy of the original version of the record to review more than a year ago), the reality is that it seems like cheesy interplay, with a voice intoning us to “check it” at the very beginning of the song – if that wasn’t a throwback to electronic dance music’s salad days, I’m not sure what is. But the vocals. Starving Yet Full and Fritz Helder trade off during the song, but their singing seems to lack a certain amount of ... soul. This is just glammed up club stuff that is very directly homage without the sense of originality or daring that those early electronic pioneers put into their discs.
Which is a long, circuitous route to get to talking about the strengths of this record, I know, but by the time you get to track three that things really begin to, for this listener, tick on the up-and-up with drum stabs that I haven’t heard since my days as a teenager listening to the early industrial of Skinny Puppy’s “Dig It”. The song here is called “Tunnel Vision”, and is anything but. A twisty and turny track with all sorts of house beats, listening to this is a little like feeling reality slip out underneath you, as though you can see seams in your life as though it were a film running at 24 frames a second. It’s absolutely delightful to listen to, as much as it probably to dance to, and I would say that this is, without a doubt, Azari & III’s signature moment: when they finally break out of being carbon copyists, and taking a stab at something that sounds retro-y innovative and inventive (if that’s indeed a possibility in its seemingly paradoxical nature). Follow-up track “Indigo” similarly rides agreeably on the snares of early techno, though you’ve probably heard this emulated enough to realize that you can take this beat and start singing “Pump Up the Jam” over it. (It should go with some mention that the video for “Reckless (With Your Love)” borrows heavily from the imagery of that Technotronic hit.) Still, there’s a dapper and debonair feel to the song, with just enough of an edge of menace and danger. It, too, is a bit of a standout.
And even though the lyrics are something of a distracting quality to the album – at least, in terms of their delivery – there are times when the non-instrumental tracks work just as well. “Undecided” sounds like power Depeche Mode from its Some Great Reward days, and is a mostly delightful ditty that mimics the snarkiness of Dave Gahan. There’s a real sense of muscle here, for the most part – the chorus is a little all over the map and seemingly belongs in another song entirely, but the verses ... oh man, the verses. Additionally, “Hungry for the Power”, the penultimate track of a 63-minute-long album, offers a familiar drum beat that could have been lifted from the glory days of techno, but it’s the sort of thing that makes you want to get up and lose control. All in all, Azari & III is a pretty not bad approximation of what dance music must have sounded like 30 years ago to an audience who might not have had access to riffling the records that build the foundation of sound displayed here. Still, it’s when the group follows the maxim “Shut Up and Dance” that they are probably at their most successful and artistic – a decision that is rendered pretty by pushing angel-like female voices to the back of the mix on their song “Change of Heart”. Azari & III seem to have a good thing going on. Here’s hoping that they keep it up by keeping the DNA of their musical style intact and maybe hiring guest with a bigger set of pipes to really convey what’s going on here – swiped from something in pop music’s past as it may just be.