Paranoia and fascination with dystopia are not new; they have been mainstays of Western music, art, and literature at least since the Industrial Revolution took millions of people and gathered them together in dense, urban, claustrophobic landscapes. Nonetheless, 2016 is an ideal year for an album like The False Foundation, the 11th studio album by trip-hop veterans Archive, anticipatory as we all seem to be of the collapse of our most trusted institutions. Released after Brexit but before Donald Trump’s triumph in the United States presidential election, one could easily draw a line from The False Foundation‘s eerie pessimism to the climate these events have both signaled and created. At the same time, the album is not hugely specific in its focus: while the icy, deconstructed electronic sound is reminiscent of relatively recent albums like Portishead’s 2008 release Third, thematically the album could have been released at most any point in our late capitalist history and been construed as relevant commentary on our political situation.
Most of the sounds and textures featured on the album can be traced back to industrial music in some form or another, usually in the form of brittle, chilly synths and electronics. This is fitting, as the album has a very literal industrial feel as well, evoking the steely architecture of an urban nightmare. Visually, the album could be correlated with the dense, stark, high-contrast urban labyrinths featured in films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or even David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Listening to “Driving in Nails”, one has the sense of a sinister edifice being constructed before one’s very eyes. A vocal sample dressed as an exhausted, falsely cheery work chant punctuates this construction, singing over and over, “Driving in nails, just driving in nails”, before the entire production is consumed by an icy, otherworldly encasement towards the end of the track. The foreboding project at foot here doesn’t seem to be fully completed until the end of the album, though, when on “Stay Tribal” vocalist Dave Pen announces, “Last nail in / No removal / It’s final”. Like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The False Foundation is a narrative of gradual and ominous assembly, the building of a structure designed to trap and restrain rather than to protect and shield.
The album is best at its most stripped down, spare, and piano-driven moments. The monolithic, elegiac opener “Blue Faces” is case in point here, as is the standout track “Bright Lights”, which features gorgeous balladry supported by a hollowed-out, barely-there drum machine. With an emotionally direct melody and heartrending lyrics, “Bright Lights” succeeds because it focuses its attention not so much on the properties of dystopia themselves, but on the quality of human connectedness situated within such a dark world. “I wanna see how far we go out / I wanna hold you dearly / And there’s a breeze that’s keeping me still / There’s a warmth that’s keeping you here,” Pen sings plaintively, in a rare moment of wounded hopefulness. If you only listen to one track from The False Foundation, this should be it.
Less successful are the moments when the album leans more closely towards electropop, as Archive lack the gift for pop melodies and vocal dynamism to properly support their forays into this genre. The repetitive melodies of “The False Foundation”, “Splinters”, and “Stay Tribal” all become grating before very long and might have been stronger productions had they simply been left as instrumental tracks. Listening to these other sections, one realizes that the searing beauty of “Bright Lights” is more of an exception than a rule. Pen’s vocals come across as unremarkable when surrounded by denser soundscapes, sitting uncomfortably as they do between elegant warbling along with the lines of the Antlers’ Peter Silberman, and a deadpan delivery more closely resembling Roger Waters. On album closer “The Weight of the World”, Archive incorporate a folk spiritual melody to surprisingly successful results, but Pen sounds positively unconvincing when he politely monotones, “Horror, horror, horror,” near the end of the track. The reprise of “Blue Faces” that then ensues was probably meant to be chilling but instead comes across as a little too predictable and by the book (again, The Wall used the same technique for its conclusion back in 1979).
Archive are an ambitious band, and that ambition is on display as fully as ever with their latest release. Fans of dystopian music may find much to enjoy here, though the album may at first glance appear more relevant to current affairs than it actually is. Like their 2014 release Axiom, The False Foundation may have been a more potent statement had it been accompanied by a film, as some of its most compelling moments lie in its evocation of urban, claustrophobic visuals. The band experiments with a variety of genres all tied together by an industrial thread, though these various forays yield inconsistent results. Despite some truly exciting and vital moments, The False Foundation struggles to cohere into a cogent statement befitting of a legitimately scary political moment.
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