It would be hard to get a better studio pedigree than that possessed by Bristol quintet Chikinki. Recorded by Steve Osborne (New Order, among others) and mixed by Alan Moulder (Depeche Mode, again, among others), Lick Your Ticker arrives with the imprimatur of two of the towering figures of synth-pop and electro-industrial. There have been a number of groups in recent years to attempt the mining of similar territory, and not many of them have been successful—will the influence of these two heavyweights be enough to keep Chikinki on the straight and narrow path to synth-pop stardom?
The strange fact is that while the aforementioned New Order and Depeche Mode practically invented the notion of building a rock combo around synthesizers and drum machines, few groups in the intervening two-and-a-half decades have come close to matching the charm and grace of the original template. The elctroclash burp of the last few years has consisted almost exclusively of acts trying their best to replicate the ‘80s sound without understanding what made those acts so special in the first place. All the toys in the world don’t mean a thing if your songs can’t pass muster, and both New Order and Depeche Mode had no shortage of great songs in addition to their revolutionary sounds. Hell, both groups are still writing pretty good songs well into their third decades.
But Chikinki represent the cutting edge of synthesizer rock circa 2005—er, actually 2004, which is when this album was initially released in the UK. Accordingly, the punk roots that most authentic New Wave bands covered up with copious amounts of powder are closer to the surface—the Stooges are name-checked alongside Primal Scream. Unfortunately, attitude or no, the songwriting isn’t as strong as the sound is powerful. Lick Your Ticket certainly sounds like a million bucks, but there’s not an awful lot under the well-groomed surface. There are hooks, yes, but they’re nowhere near as memorable as the listener would wish, and the band’s different tendencies seem jarringly at war.
The album begins with “Assassinator 13”, which introduces us to the group’s distinctive sound: precise, mechanized guitar rhythms and strange synth sounds juxtaposed against yelpy vocals slightly reminiscent of Kings of Leon. It’s a mid-tempo stomper the likes of which you’ve heard a thousand times. There’s the kernel of a good idea here, but it’s rendered unfortunately flaccid in contrast to the sterling production.
“Ether Radio” is a slightly sleeker beast, gaining traction with the aide of a urgent guitar line that pushes the track into the pulsing synthesizer riff that comprises the main movement. This track grasps some of the potential achieved by successful modern synth groups such as Ladytron, who are able to use the implacable propulsion of electronic sound for powerful means. Unfortunately the lesson is lost with “Drink”. This track attempts to create something slightly more subtle out of the interplay between conventional and electronic sounds, but mostly ends up with a muddle.
“Hate TV” gets at the heart of why this template is essentially unstable: with the band’s electronic elements relegated to separate corners and placed in perpetual contrast, neither side can exert enough control to push the songs outside the realm of mediocre. Sure enough, you’ve got the same kind of quiet/loud industrial dynamic that Nine Inch Nails was able to hone to a razor’s edge, but the results are disappointingly rote. The explosions of rock and roll seem counter-indicated by the swooshing electronics, neither side well-reflected by the other. “Staple Nation” works a little better because it allows the band’s two sides to come together in a far more organic whole, allowing for a far more satisfying, and far less schizoid, structure.
So it is for the rest of the album. For every satisfactory tune like “All Eyes” that manages to weld the melody to a distinctive texture, there’s a disappointing exercise in muddy post-grunge industrial dynamics such as “Scissors Paper Stone”. It must be said, however, that the quality control improves significantly after the first half. “To Sacrifice a Child” emits a whiff of potent dancefloor adrenalin, catching fire with an angular guitar line that floats uneasily above a clattering breakbeat. “Bombs” is all low-key guitar and mellow synthesizers, building towards a soft fade that feels positively graceful next to much of the album’s misplaced bombast. “Like It Or Leave It” is nervy and disconsolate in equal proportion.
“Time” finds its strength in a pounding New Wave backbeat that dispels all doubt as soon as it hits the floor. The album closes with “Forever”, an attempt at moody ambience that, at three minutes, feels about half as long as it should be and not quite as satisfying as it undoubtedly would like. That’s the bottom line with Chikinki: I found myself liking much of the album despite myself. There are some good ideas here, and perhaps a few great ones, but the execution just isn’t yet in place. Perhaps time, and another album or two, will give them the courage of their convictions and the experience necessary to branch out from well-trod pathways and explore a genuinely unique approach to electronic fusion. Maybe they need to ditch the heavyweights behind the mixing boards in order to make their own way. If they can manage to find that mysterious sweet-spot between texture and song, and can put their disparate elements into something more closely resembling a cohesive whole, they’ll be set. But that’s one of the hardest things in all of music to figure out so… we’ll see.