Tunnels: The Blackout

The Blackout
Thrill Jockey

Tunnels is the solo project of Nick Bindeman, best known for playing in psych-rock outfit Eternal Tapestry and experimentalists Jackie-O Motherfucker. But where those bands stretch out and explore space, Bindeman’s latest Tunnels record , The Blackout, is decidedly claustrophobic. Its lean, dark electronic pop structures pen in his eccentric sounds, tie them down on short leashes to writhe and throw fits.

It can make for some compelling sounds. The brittle guitar riffs on “Volt 1979” sound tense enough to snap the strings. “Red Road” is thick with roiling synths, filling up so much space they threaten to upend the straight lines of the song, but they never do. “Solid Space” sands down the edges of the keys and bass into something odd and off-putting. It sounds underwater, or like you’re waiting for your ears to pop, and that muffled feel creates its own compelling tension.

What drives these songs along is the focus on rhythm. These songs can soar and glimmer with keys all they want, but it’s the tight bass lines that push these songs forward. If his work in other bands is about tangents, The Blackout is about finding a groove and riding it as far as it will go. As a result, these songs feel oddly funky despite their persistently cold feel. The bass is dry as a bone here, each note quick and contained, but the lines it creates are the true pulse of the record. The spacey wandering of “Deux” would float away if it weren’t for the tense bass line. “Dead Ringers” would sound overly wistful and corny without the low end, and opener “Crystal Arms” — with its creepy, layered vocals — wouldn’t have all that ghostly heft without the bass to thump it forward.

In these moments — the best parts this record has to offer — Bindeman shows a new and solid penchant for restraint. These songs are bizarre but minimalist, spare in their instrumentation and terse in their delivery. There’s enough gossamer synth vamps and odd lazer-beam flourishes to let you know Bindeman hasn’t left his experimentalist’s ear for surprise behind, but the draw of The Blackout is how the pieces of these songs fit together.

But for all its compelling structure, and the fine bass work, The Blackout also suffers from an overindulgence in its cool, dark vibe. As electro-pop pieces, most of these songs work just fine, but when you work Bindeman’s vocals into the mix, the results can seem melodramatic, sapping the songs of their initial power. There are nods to plenty of dark, synth-driven music — from Suicide to Lodger-era Bowie — but when Bindeman sings, it feels a little like ventriloquism. Bowie looms large here, as Bindeman seems to be doing his best Ziggy Stardust on songs like “Volt 1979” and “Without Light”. On “Deux”, Bindeman snaps out of the deadpan, sci-fi delivery of those songs into something more hot-blooded, but there he just trades in Bowie for David Byrne. In other places, like “Crystal Arms”, he soaks his voice in effects that end up feeling too heavy for these lean songs. They overplay the chilly effect of the song and end up turning subtle textures into something more ham-handed.

The Blackout surely shows Bindeman’s skill as a multi-talented musician, one capable of wearing all kinds of different hats. The sonic landscape he creates here, as producer and musician, is an often compelling one, and a nice counterpoint to the maximalist sound of his other bands. It’s when he turns into frontman, though, that the wheels come off a bit. The music here puts him in line with some great electronic work that came before, but the singing feels more like he’s borrowing from his predecessors than building on what they created.

RATING 5 / 10