At a time when pretty much everyone is supplementing their sound with heavy doses of electronica, the UK trio Appliance have jumped on the digital bandwagon with a disc that filters their guitar-bass-drums line-up under a heavy layer of blips, bleeps and programmed beats. This would be fine if the electronics were used to flesh out Appliance’s already spartan sound, but the band has instead opted for an austere, Kraftwerkian approach, making this one of the dreariest examples of post-Industrial mood rock to come down the pike in a long time. Only the most hardcore fans of minimalism will connect with material this sparse and bloodless.
I’m sure Appliance would deny any Goth/Industrial ties, but they sure start off sounding like Nine Inch Nails with a midtempo, high-hat laden head-bopper called “Separate Animals”. Lead singer James Brooks is no Trent Reznor, but his menacing croon is pretty effective here, in part because the song features the album’s catchiest chorus. Over the course of Imperial Metric, however, Brooks’ ponderous, deadpan delivery wears thin—there are no levels at all in his voice, just an affected monotone that suggests the singer is as bored with his own material as we are. By the time the album limps into “A Gentle Cycle Revolution”, which sounds like U2 on valium with its slow-build arrangement of gospelly keyboards and chugging guitars, it’s hard to care about whatever it is he’s droning on about. I think I caught the word “perestroika” mentioned somewhere, though, which suggests that Brooks’ lyrical ideas are as dated as his band’s stiff use of drum machines and analog synths.
“Map of the Territory” mutes the monotony of Brooks’ singing by subtly filtering him, a la Doves or Radiohead, but the rest of the track is a relentlessly dull march of rattling synth drones and repetitive beats. “F.L.F. (Precious Bodily Fluids)” leaves him out of the mix altogether, which is a little better, although musically there’s nothing about the track that particularly stands out. Other instrumentals on the album have a similar workmanlike anonymity about them—they’re like excerpts from the soundtrack to some slow-moving piece of German New Wave cinema, exercises in pure atmosphere that aren’t unpleasant to listen to, but are so lacking in melodic or structural ideas that they fade from the memory as soon as they’re over. Listening to the unfolding gloom of “Comrades (in a Moscow Hotel”) is like eating tapioca on an overcast day.
When Appliance fall back on live instruments, they’re more effective. “Land, Sea and Air” has a great guitar Goth-flavored guitar hook, and “A Little More Information” comes close to actually rocking thanks to what sound like live drums. The problem, it seems to me, is that Appliance’s emphasis on minimal arrangements has been much more thoroughly explored in the electronica realm than it has in more conventional rock settings, and by people with far better programming chops. There’s simply nothing here that measures up to the most average work of, say, Aphex Twin, or even Moby when he’s in his more experimental/ambient mode. You could argue that the arrangements here are necessarily less innovative because Appliance uses mosty old drum machines and analog synths, but imposing such self-limitations is simply an exercise in pretension unless you have the vision to back it up. Maybe it was Appliance’s vision to take musical dreariness to new heights—even the brown cardboard packaging is dreary. But dreariness is not a musical statement I care to have in my CD collection.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.