When musical genres start running out of steam, they begin to cannibalize their past. This is what rock has been doing now for over a decade, with its high-profile forays into ‘70s arena stomp-rock (a.k.a. grunge) and latter-day punk, as well its latest kick, the garage revival. (This is not to suggest that rock is dead or anything so dramatic—just that it seems to have been suffering from a collective lack of imagination for some time now.) Now electronic dance music, entering its fourth decade, is beginning to do the same thing—artists like Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx and the Avalanches are mining the sounds of ‘70s disco, ‘80s electro, and early ‘90s techno and acid house to create music that, at its best, proves that dance music has a much better sense of humor about itself than rock does, and at its worst, demonstrates how much more quickly this kind of music passes its expiration date.
Of all the dance music revivalist trends, none seems more puzzling or gratuitous than the return of electro. Not that bands like Erasure and the Human League weren’t fun to dance to back in their day, but their robotic beats and primitive sonic palettes were a product of the limited technology of their times, and the advent of samples, turtablism, and more sophisticated synthesizers and programming software came along not a moment too soon to save us all from falling asleep on the dance floor. Now, already, those old electro-New Wave chestnuts sound as dated as the cooings of a Motown girl group, the relics of a endearingly naive but mercifully brief chapter in musical history when bands actually thought metronomic drum machines and programmable keyboards would save music from the prosaic vagaries of human error.
Now, of course, we know better, and realize that human error is part of the fun of music, which is why many dance music and hip-hop producers have reintroduced live musicians into their tracks and why many punk and garage rock outfits are gleefully laying down one sloppy guitar track and distorted bassline after another, knowing that raw energy often sounds a lot cooler than musical perfection. But apparently not everyone agrees. Some folks out there are still snapping up electro records and dancing along to that robotic sound, perhaps wishing futilely that the music could lift them forever out of their clumsy meat-and-bone bodies and into a perfect cyberworld where everyone boogies to the beat inside their robot brains.
Luke Slater, it must be said, is not one of these people, at least not intentionally. His stated aim on Alright on Top, his latest release, was to move beyond the soulless precision of the techno-funk-electro workouts he mastered on Freek Funk and Wireless and bring his music into the human realm with the addition of vocals and melody. Unfortunately, all this has done is make Slater’s synth-laden soundscapes sound even more obviously like their Depeche Mode/New Order forebears than ever before. For much of Alright on Top, you’d almost swear you were listening to a very clever demo from a geeky bunch of early ‘80s black-eyeliner-wearing music students. Tracks like “Stars and Heroes” and the vocoder torch song “I Can Complete You” really do sound that dated.
Much of the blame for this can be placed not so much on Slater as on his principle collaborator here, vocalist Ricky Barrow, formerly of the British electronica band the Aloof, whose colorless vocals fail to achieve even the arch wit of Soft Cell’s Marc Almond or the sullen mystique of New Order’s Bernard Sumner. Even songs less mired in electro’s cheesy aesthetics, like the album’s old-school Brit rave opener “Nothing at All”, never quite get off the ground, because Barrow’s singing simply lacks the energy to take it to the next level. His inclusion is a major mistake.
The latter half of Alright on Top has a few more interesting moments, as Slater’s techno instincts assert themselves more. “Searchin for a Dream”, the album’s best track, is a ferocious breakbeat workout with a great, swirling electro-synth chorus, though here again Barrow undermines things a bit with a feeble attempt at some Michael Hutchence-style sexy menace. “Twisted Kind of Girl” ventures into electro-industrial territory with interesting results, and the closing cut, “Doctor of Divinity”, finds Slater cutting loose with the kind of peak-hour techno dance track he’s better known for—and better at executing. It also benefits from Barrow remaining largely absent, confined to just a few heavily synthesized vocal overlays.
Far be it from me to claim that electro is all bad—some artists, including Slater himself, have successfully plumbed it for inspiration, and its mechanized heart will always be beating somewhere under the more sophisticated sounds of latter-day dance music. But Alright on Top proves once again that, in modern dance music, a little electro goes a long way, and too much can make even the most talented dance music producer sound like a nostalgia-addled fool.