If there were an exam on the history of electronic music, from first beep to present pulse, Portland duo Soft Metals would surely get straight As. They know their beans. They could pin a tail on a Frankie Knuckles’ joint blindfolded, recall an obscure Yellow Magic Orchestra album track with one opening note, and even name every member of Kraftwerk without looking it up on Wikipedia. Their garage is probably chocka full of vintage Rolands, wires, smoke machines, and blinking lights. It’s probably a fire hazard, actually, you should really sort this mess out. I’m guessing Ian Hicks and Patricia Furpurse (seriously amazing stage name) sit in their garage ’til the break of dawn lighting up that puppy like Solo and his Wookie firin’ up the Millenium Falcon. I bet they respectfully digest the manuals, though – cover to cover, inside and out. Yes, Soft Metals reside in the more selective, serious, chin-stroking side of electronic music beside your Orbitals, Orbs, Sterling Voids, Aphex Twins, and Guy Called Geralds. If your name’s not “Heritage”, you’re not coming in. Disco dollies? Trot on, Sista! But is it actually any fun? Folks, get ready to chin stroke.
Soft Metals rolls like a tight, professional, but lovingly sincere museum tour of “Real electronica”. That’s “Real Electronica”, not the prancing around in baggy pastel pants whilst hollering “Oh yeah, your love takes me hiiiigher”. More scientists hunched over inexplicably complex gadgetry, riding the groove, triggering gurgling beats, whilst twizzling knobs ‘n’ dials like spinning plates. The first gallery Furpurse leads us through is the Kraftwerk suite itself with “Psychic Driving”. Ah, the origins! Modestly paced ‘floaty-synthy’ as anaesthetically soothing as drifting inside a relaxation chamber at the local health spa. You’re breathing deeply. Wave at the Unicorn as it hops over the rainbow into the little fluffy clouds! Ooh, let all that stress right out. “You’ve had me for some time / I’m gonna take back what’s mine” threatens Furpurse, somewhat disconcertingly. The similarly paced “Always” holds us in “Kraftwerk Korner”, echoing the militant drive of “Robots” but introduces a brush of tougher Grandmaster Flash street beats and some TB-303 acid squelch, which only adds to the hypnotic sway. It’s all still very serious, though, now straight faces, chaps, and zip up that matching white jump suit, pronto!
The sense of passing through musical galleria is enhanced by the inclusion of two brief, if not convincingly memorable, instrumentals which act as the precarious rope bridge between opposing worlds. “Celestial Call” feeds late 80’s Depeche Mode-style gothy sampling with some heavenly Eastern choirs, whilst “Hold My Breath” is gurgling, broody bass pierced by cascading light. It’s all a bit “Miami Vice, night scene, Crockett reflects”. So let’s move on, shall we? We’ve still got lots to see and we need to get to the gift shop before it closes!
Some rooms are more welcoming than others, but many are worthy of return visits. The seriously impressive “Voices” hangs in the European darkwave room. A coven of black nail varnish, dead eyes, and blank expressions in dimly lit Berlin nightclubs. “A little voice inside my head echoes! Echoes! Louder!”. Dramatic, archly sleek, and more euphoric than its bedfellows, it’s stealth pop and sounds like some classy, freak-unique cult Euro banger from 1988. It’s a keeper for sure. “The Cold World Melts” favours the dark, too, like Giorgio Moroder under midnight skies and a full moon. It’s a rebellious Soft Metals forcibly stealing the reins and veering off the beaten path toward unknown pleasures. A flourishing, feverish futurist rush that suits them perfectly. Furpurse’s ghostly vocal echoing through the tannoy over exhilarating John Carpenter buzzing electro bass, asthmatic hi-hats, and the pulse of racing through the night. Upon its conclusion, the only sensible response is, “I’ll have what she’s having”.
Another treasure is the lighter, bouncier “Pain”, which, despite its title, isn’t caged in the Nitzer Ebb room but more akin to early ’90s romantic synth-pop like St Etienne or One Dove. Its confessions on a dancefloor, “Your eyes never look at me / Your lips never speak to me / That pain finds me everyday” weeps Furpurse like an unrequited ghost in the machine. It’s such a relentless, infectious groove that it’s easy to imagine a crowd rampacked into a tent, bobbing up ‘n’ down at 3 a.m. at Glastonbury or Coachella. Soft Metals build their music layer by layer right before you, the effect akin to watching a painter in fast forward. The same hypnosis spins again on “Eyes Closed”, which envisages a Donna Summer vs. Orbital transcendental face-off, albeit to lesser effect. “Eyes closed to see… eyes closed to see… love”. I’m sensing waves in the mind, seagulls with lasers for eyes. It is possibly better experienced whilst tripping your tits off amongst 1000 other like-minded folk. “Anyone for more Acieeeeeed?”
As is the danger with serious electronic music, there is the chance you’ll disconnect. Despite Furpurse’s achingly sincere reflections on love lost, “Do You Remember?”, musically, feels like Soft Metals on autopilot. The final instrumental “In Throes”, though, is definitely a bridge too far. Despite its title promising unhinged KORG trashing freakout, it feels like the band have taken their bows, leaving the machines to pack up: “Yeah, you cats shake your thing; we’ll see you backstage for drinks”. If you were in a club, you’d be queuing for your cloak during this and worrying about how little sleep you’re gonna get before getting up for work.
Soft Metals works convincingly as a heartfelt, informed, and enjoyable guide to the history of the electronic heart. It’s not always awe-inspiring Objet d’art — you’ll scurry through some rooms faster than others — but there are enough “WOW!” moments to justify the ticket price. Soft Metals’ devotion to their cause rings true. They know dance music can be crazy, sexy, cool. Well, they’ve got the last two nailed; they just need to crank up the former. It definitely works to slip off those lab coats more often. Hell, even Beaker ‘n’ Bunsen, the studious scientists from the Muppets, got to blow shit up at least once a week. School’s out for summer, so throw your homework onto the fire and burn that mutha down!