Midnight Juggernauts: Uncanny Valley

[16 October 2013]

By Ryan Lathan

“But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet”
—Mr. Beaver from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

Named after a hypothesis formed by Japanese professor and roboticist Masahiro Mori, in the early 1970s,Uncanny Valley, the third album from electro-pop, rock band Midnight Juggernauts, sees the Australian trio successfully meld sci-fi grandeur, giallo film score aesthetics, kaleidoscopic psychedelic pop and dance floor euphoria. The title concerns itself with the comfort level of humans towards robots or CGI images that move and appear human-like. The object may look stunningly authentic, but the spectator knows something is amiss. Similar to the emotions I’ve felt while watching the motion capture, computer-animated imagery used throughout films like The Polar Express or 2007’s Beowulf, the “uncanny valley” identifies the tipping point where bedazzlement turns into repugnance through a false facial expression or body movement. If the inspiration for the album’s title seems a bit lofty or pretentious, the instantly accessible music the band has created, prevents the record from collapsing under the weight of it all. 

The press release describes the band’s latest effort as “robotic sounds made by human hands”, and to their credit, the album balances the warmth of the human touch and the coldness of synthetic textures in a remarkably adept fashion. Uncanny Valley is a wildly entertaining album, one that succeeds where its predecessors left me puzzled and unfulfilled. Debut Dystopia and its successor The Crystal Axis were often overly-bloated affairs. Apart from the often emotionless, awkward lyricism that has plagued them from the beginning, the new album consistently delivers one killer hook after another and trims away the prog rock excesses that plagued them in the past. 

The tension builds slowly in darkly-sexy, filmic opener “HCL”, and the trio waits until halfway through the track to unleash the bright, anthemic chorus. When it arrives, it’s as if someone tore open the sky. It’s a fantastic and disquieting introduction, but not necessarily indicative of everything else that follows. Aside from vaguely foreboding, penultimate track “Another Land”, the record meanders only occasionally into the shadows, spilling over into Krautrock territory and paying homage to the music of Italian horror film band’s such as Goblin. 

“Ballad of the War Machine”, the albums first single, was quietly released in the form of a rather clownish, low-fi video, seemingly unearthed from the vaults of some Russian record label’s studio from the early 1980s. The introduction appears to be taken from clips of old Russian TV shows, and shows the band dancing about in stereotypically traditional Russian military uniforms. It took a few weeks for the music blogs to catch on that this was no archived gem from the past, but the latest single from a distinctly un-Soviet band. The ominous, swirling synth sounds emulate organs, harpsichords and theremins and it feels almost like a lost theme to an imaginary ‘70s sitcom set on a spaceship. It’s an interesting choice as a leadoff single, but the quirky video and production value really capture the renewed creativity the band seems to have lassoed.

The latest single “Memorium”, and its accompanying visual ode to the history & evolution of CGI, pulses on with a widescreen, starry-eyed majesty, paving way for the restrained ecstasy of the ‘80s synth-pop track “Streets of Babylon”. A personal favorite of mine, this is the most club-oriented song of the record. The momentum continues to build and then the trio leaves the listener dangling in a mist of Robin Guthrie-esque guitar reverb. “Sugar and Bullets” employs a spiky electric guitar plucking that could have been pulled out of theSuspiriasoundtrack. The contrast of sunny pop chorus and foreboding background instrumentals, creates a striking dichotomy.

“Master of Gold”, pulls back the reins on the forward-driving momentum and injects the proceedings with strummed acoustic guitars and a psychedelic-infused haze. Stylistically reminiscent of the Swedish band Dungen or Tame Impala, the song serves as the dividing point between the first and second halves of the album. “Systematic” coasts by on an entertaining funk-laden groove and features a wicked, spaced-out guitar accompaniment. As I’ve mentioned guitars multiple times now, I must say that the instrumentation on this album is all rather clever, both in that aforementioned department and in the wide array of synth-sounds utilized throughout.

“Deep Blue Lines”, with its continually looping, five-note ascending scales, drifts by like a satellite gliding across the sky. It’s a beautiful track that instantly made me think of any number of songs off Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, if they had gone full on electronica. The album closes with a shimmering sitar in the distance before returning to a sound that pays tribute to their debut record and steps firmly onto a dance floor in the present. “Melodiya” is a perfect, rapturous, hands in the air closure to an already impressive collection of songs.

The Melbourne-based band took a brief hiatus in the three years following their last album The Crystal Axis and collectively turned their focus towards a film scoring project for 2012’s Melbourne Music Week, under the band name Thematica. It appears that detour gave them a refined clarity and renewed creative vision. Sonically cohesive, Uncanny Valley is the sound of a band rediscovering the inspiration that had seemingly been diluted on their sophomore effort. Undeniably human and full of marvelous imperfections, the synthetic landscape the trio has created, never rings false or seems disingenuous. In that sense, with Uncanny Valley, Midnight Juggernauts have successfully avoided eliciting any of the negative emotions their album’s title might imply. The hatchets can be put away this time around.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/175017-midnight-juggernauts-uncanny-valley/