[9 August 2007]
After titling an album that bordered on ambience Drumsolo’s Delight merely four short years ago (you’d better believe there was nothing even approaching a “drum solo” on that album), it only stands to reason that Strategy’s newest offering would throw us another curveball via its title.
Future Rock is the name of this latest Strategy (née Paul Dickow) album, and actually, for an album with such a forward-leaning title, it sure does have a tendency to look back. Dickow’s vision of future rock, it seems, derives its vocals from the vocoders of Kraftwerk, its ambience from the kraut of Can, and its groove from the spaceship Funkadelic. It’s as if Paul Dickow is offering the definition of future rock circa 1975, like those looks toward the year 2000 from that era that had us all driving flying cars and taking pills in lieu of enjoying meals by now. The electronic programming work is really the only thing on Future Rock that sounds at all futuristic, and heck, we’ve had programmed beats and bleeps and bloops for years now.
Futuristic or not, however, Dickow manages to make the combination of influences he’s assembled on Future Rock work, fusing this array of styles into something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. For one, the sheer number of elements that show up throughout the album result in an incredibly lush sound, simultaneously minimalist (as evidenced by the constant repetition of certain elements) and mad scientist, as he tosses myriad elements together just praying for a reaction. It’s an approach that serves him best on the brilliant title track, a nine-minute slow-burn that bases its variation around a static, never-changing chord used as a rhythmic device. The actual drum sounds are pretty standard fare, an easy little beat only there to set the stage, but it’s that chord, shifting in and out of syncopation, layering rhythms on top of rhythms, that draws all the attention. There’s a funky little bassline, there are these ghostly synths floating around in the background that are actually responsible for the chord changes in the song, and still… that rhythmic chord, placed right in front of the mix, is what compels us to pay attention. It’s utterly fascinating listening to a song wind itself around such a static element, and that’s exactly what “Future Rock” does.
It’s those ghostly background synths, however, that define Future Rock as a whole. From the very first moments of “Can’t Roll Back”, we hear them there in the background, even as Dickow is doing his best Brian Eno on the vocal end and an electric guitar is fluttering around in the foreground. Barely noticeable, they are what make these songs sound so lush. They’re the reason “Can’t Roll Back” will inevitably described as “atmospheric” more often than it’s described as boring, and they’re the reason “Red Screen” holds comfort within its defiant dissonance. It’s utterly (and probably intentionally) disconcerting when they disappear, as on “Stops Spinning”, where a gently pulsing, cleanly-produced keyboard takes their place.
And then, just when you think you’ve got a handle on the album, Dickow pulls out the exact inverse of those ghostly synths for the three minutes of “Sunfall”, turning multi-tracked drones into piercing chords, thick, glassy walls of sound meant to push the ears and allow the listener a moment of clarity before diving back into the swamp of “Red Screen”.
So, it seems that while there may not actually be anything immediately futuristic about Future Rock (heck, even its cover art looks like that of a late ‘70s punk album), it is a masterfully put together album, weilding its ingredients like a master chef and venturing into various related genres with utter confidence. Very little of it is immediately ear-catching, but it’s the sort of album that can slowly work its way into your consciousness, eventually winning you over with its mood and its ambition. Kranky has another winner on its hands, with a Future we should all want to be a part of.