[20 June 2014]
A lot of things come to mind when spinning the third album by the Brooklyn-based electronic duo Home Video, Here in Weightless Fall. The tenor vocals bring to mind Thom Yorke, who has spawned more imitators than most vocalists in the present day. The mood of the record is easy to compare to the “ethereal R&B” trend of recent years; anyone who has listened to Beacon‘s The Ways We Separate or anything by How to Dress Well will likely have more than a few bells ring in her head upon hearing this music. Opening cut “Symptoms of a Fall” kicks things off with a move straight from the playbook The Knife so famously concocted with their breakthrough LP Silent Shout back in 2006. Yet in spite of all of the reference points a listener may be able to pick out when listening to Here in Weightless Fall, Home Video have made a record that’s entirely aware of its influences and transcends them through its own unique songcraft.
The duo, comprised of Collin Ruffino (guitar and vocals) and David Gross (bass, keyboards, and electronics), is quite forthcoming about the artists it seeks inspiration from. Gross admits, “We’ve always been strongly influenced by bands like Massive Attack, Portishead, and early Cure—bands with strong, driving rhythms and epic, moody textures. I think this time around we really just went with that; our instincts lead us in that direction by default, and we didn’t really try to steer them towards something we think might be more accessible as much as we did perhaps on the previous record. That’s one thing about living and working as musicians in NYC: it’s easy to figure out what people want to listen based on what bands are getting the most buzz. It can be hard to resist the temptation to skew your own sound towards whatever is popular in order to increase your audience, especially when our longtime drummer goes off and starts playing with bands like Holy Ghost! and Hot Chip”.
Of course, knowing where one goes to draw from the fount of inspiration doesn’t preclude innovation. Rather than being entirely beholden to those that came before them, Ruffino and Gross hone in on the best ideas their predecessors have and put their own spin on them. “I think most of our music has a certain atmospheric quality—mostly on the darker end. This time we just embraced the darkness”, Gross says, “Though for me darkness is most interesting when complemented by lighter elements, whether they come through in the vocals, or an unexpected chord change”.
As Gross recalls, the music for Here in Weightless Fall started with a simple bit of experimentation just before a concert. “The music for Here In Weightless Fall started a few years ago when before soundcheck in Burlington, Vermont. I was playing an arpeggiated synth progression, and Collin came in with this sparse, haunting guitar melody that immediately gave me chills. We knew it was the start of something new, and from there on we tried to let the songs take us where they wanted to go—usually starting with a driving beat and some synths. It was really important to let a lot of the space remain in the arrangements, and to not spend too much time over-thinking or over-producing”.
While the impressive pool of artists that Home Video admires clearly served as an ideal springboard for the formation of Here in Weightless Fall‘s music, so too did the duo’s location in Brooklyn, a regional scene that seems to be churning out a new band every day. Both the city’s possibilities and its limitations proved instrumental in Ruffino and Gross’s songwriting process. Gross explains, “Brooklyn can be a really inspiring place to be creative. But it can also be really overwhelming; there is just so much great (and terrible) stuff going on constantly. In the case of this album, I think being more plugged into the local music scene helped motivate us to write and produce the album as quickly as we did. I joined Penguin Prison and later MNDR as a touring keyboard player, so suddenly our timelines got a lot tighter. We didn’t have unlimited time to perfect everything, which turned out to be a huge advantage”.
Here in Weightless Fall is a product not only of its creative environment, but also the political landscape nearby. Ruffino describes, “There was a lot of tumult and excitement in the world and my own life when the album was written. I had a long-term relationship end and then found myself participating in more radical political things. The Occupy movement was raging in NYC, and there was a hope in the air that carried me through the darkness of that break-up. I think you can feel that push and pull between despair and resilience in the album”.
That conflict, which Ruffino labels the tension between “despair and hope”, is seen particularly in “Symptoms of a Fall”. “The song is, on the surface, a sort of prosaic first-person description of an arrogant person falling off the ledge of a cliff and the feeling of falling,” Ruffino says. “The idea behind it encompasses a lot of the themes on the album. I was trying to tie the feeling after a relationship breaking-up to the feeling of the world breaking down politically and ecologically. There is a sort of arrogance one has being in a steady relationship, that everything is ok. Once that feeling is ripped out of you, you feel rudderless and lost and have to re-situate yourself in relation to the world. You have to regain your confidence”.
“Confidence” is an appropriate word for Ruffino to use, for Here in Weightless Fall is the document of a band that is well aware of its sound and knows how to perform it with skillful ease. “We’re strongest when we embrace what we do best,” Gross observes, a realization that “guided our sound back to our roots on this record.”
This confidence gives Here in Weightless Fall one of its most compelling traits. While the aforementioned comparisons to ethereal R&B artists like How to Dress Well and Beacon are with good warrant, one key distinction is to be made between those projects and Home Video. The former groups tend to acknowledge sexuality, an inherent component to R&B, and then promptly submerge it under waves of reverb and textured, sterilized synths. As Gary Suarez put it in his PopMatters review of Ejecta‘s Dominae, “The rise of alternative / indie / whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it R&B frequently borders on farce, with its growing crop of mostly white artists regularly finding astounding new ways to desexualize an urban genre known for its libidinous content”. Too often, as Suarez humorously points out, records of this kind “bas[k] in [their] antiseptic atmosphere, as enamored with… textural intricacies as a cretin with his own gas”.
In contrast, Home Video manages to inject some real muscle into its otherwise dark, textural, and sometimes ethereal electronic music. The bass synth on album highlight “Forget” manages to co-exist with blippy electronics and textural pad synths without losing any of its drive. Here in Weightless Fall is miles away from R&B proper, but it manages to preserve an underlying sexuality where other artists might have whitewashed it entirely. The bass on “Meant to Be” is genuinely funky, even as Ruffino’s waifish vocals at the top of the mix and the buzzy synths do their best to amp up the melancholy.
And melancholy this album is; though the groovy bass is well placed throughout these eleven tunes, instrumentally speaking it’s the echoey, slow-burn synths and spare piano chords that linger most in memory. A striking example is closer “Advice”, which just as it is about to conclude is driven home by an abrupt dynamic shift, with an intense synth burst providing a moment of triumph at the end of a gloomy set of songs.
Ruffino’s meditative and sometimes devastating lyrics only further add to the emotional experience of the music. “Beacon” opens with a powerful rhetorical question: “How did you decide what was right/In the definite noise of life?” Unsurprisingly, the writing of the lyrics and the music fell into place simultaneously. Says Ruffino, “We begin by getting together and making the music, and I usually have a stockpile of lyrical ideas on hand that I want to use. But the writing was pretty much in tandem for this record. We tried to be as immediate, intuitive and efficient as we could be with the music. So we’d write the skeleton of a song, then I’d listen to what we did and try to morph a lyrical idea to fit what we’d written.
“Once that rough sketch is laid down, we really figure out how to fill out or pair down what is there. We wrote all of the songs almost sequentially as they are on the album, so it was easier to create a narrative lyrical thread line throughout the whole album. It was like deciding what was the next scene in a film. And I felt so full of emotion from my experience, there was no shortage of ideas”.
Entrancing, complex, and haunting, Here in Weightless Fall is moody electronic music done right.
Here in Weightless Fall is out on June 24th through Dash Go.