The line which divides “conventional” electronic music—much of which lands firmly in the “dance” category—and the more cerebral but less easily-defined world of IDM (“intelligent dance music”) is hard to draw. For one, who is to say that mainstream dance music like Underworld and the Chemical Brothers isn’t intelligent? Also, many conventional electronic artists tend to get experimental every now and again, and sometimes even Autechre uses a 4/4. The vocabulary we use to discuss these genres breaks down at a certain point because, for the most part, there are no hard-and-fast dividing lines. Considering that most of these folks use the same tools to create some pretty bizarre future music, sometimes the only thing separating a club hit from a post-graduate thesis in experimental composition is whether or not their record label got an Armand van Helden mix for the 12”.
Artists that make a career out of straddling the dividing line between these concepts can sometimes get lost in the shuffle, neither fish nor foul. Hans Möller and Michael Zorn are Boy Robot, and their work seems stranded between the heavy computerized punch of Daft Punk and the melancholy of Boards of Canada, with a bit of Autechre’s mechanistic precision thrown in for good measure. The effect is occasionally disorienting and slightly derivative but entirely pleasurable.
Although most tracks on Rotten Cocktails feature conventional 4/4 rhythm tracks, the melodic elements placed over the steady framework are more ambiguous. Sometimes the beats themselves can be amorphous, with hard bass kicks chopped and distorted into spry clicks or abrupt stabs. Often time the synthesizer riffs seem to have wandered in from a strange space-dub album, floating in the breeze above the dancefloor like a forbidding haze. The whimsical relationship between rhythm and atmosphere brings to mind Mike Paradinas’ µ-ziq project, in particularly his underrated 1999 album Royal Astronomy.
The album begins with “Magic Toys For Girls and Boys”, which starts with a playfully discordant keyboard riff offset against strange farting organ noises. Then an enormous echoing breakbeat collides with the track, and at this point it resembles nothing so much as Amon Tobin, with melodic dub elements set against heaving jungle beats. It’s something of an odd track to begin the album with, as most of the album is firmly grounded in the realm of house or breakbeat tempos. “Invaders of Vanity Clubland”, for instance, utilizes a staticky breakbeat to lay down a solid foundation for a succession of oddly-flanged, subtly-changing waves of synthesizer noise, a pattern which will recur through much of the album.
“We Accept All Our Parents Credit Cards” reminds me strongly of Jason Forrest, featuring a backbone composed of what might just be a split-second sample of a more familiar track stretched out into a hard-hitting deep house 4/4. Of course, after a few seconds they lay some seriously pastoral melodic dub over the top. “Sweet Honeybee of Infinity” introduces a more complex rhythm, featuring a multi-layered sequence of percussive feints which add up to a larger, more satisfying pattern. It’s the kind of methodical strategy most often utilized by Orbital—right down to the sweeping, atmospheric keyboards laid over the top.
The appropriately-titled “Bass & Booze” is a simmering house track built atop a punishing harsh dub bassline. It steadily grows over the course of five minutes, becoming more and more elaborate until fading away. “Live in Vanilla” again brings to mind comparisons to both Orbital and µ-ziq, employing the same kind of gradually elaborate structure used by the former on the second half of 1997’s In Sides in conjunction with the same kind of queasy, echoing keyboards utilized by Paradinas throughout his career. “Super Scorer” is set to be released as a single, and it’s easy to see why: it’s got a sweet bass kick and a grinding 303 sample that would sound great on a dancefloor (although—listen up, remixers—it might be useful to speed it up a little bit).
“Asthmatic Detroit Car” slides down from the punch of “Super Scorer” and into the album’s moody denouement. The song is constructed around a spooky synth pattern that is slowly tweaked and bent over the course of almost five minutes, laid atop a funky downtempo house beat. “Bonjour Frisur” brings the album to a close in high fashion, with a satisfying mélange of slinky breakbeats set against swooshing synths and a forlorn melodica (you gotta love the melodica).
Boy Robot aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before, but they do what they do very well. There’s a lot to like here for fans of a more cerebral brand of dance music, as the combination of haunting abstract melodies and funky computer rhythms is not a common one. By pulling freely from disparate traditions of modern electronic music, they achieve an effective synthesis that could conceivably become the foundation of a more involved idiom.