Music

Simian Mobile Disco: Unpatterns

Simian Mobile Disco's attempt at a headphones record, after making a name for themselves as blog-house practitioners, is marred by aloof monotony.


Simian Mobile Disco

Unpatterns

Label: Wichita
US Release Date: 2012-05-15
UK Release Date: 2012-05-14
Website
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

There’s a semantic efficiency in the name Simian Mobile Disco that I’ve always liked. A derivative of the DJ duo’s old band, Simian, alongside whom they used to spin on tour before spinning off on their own, these three words in tandem express wastelessly exactly what it is James Ford and Jason Shaw have been doing over the course of three albums and many remixes. From back to front: ‘disco’ is their pledge not to deviate from insistent four-on-the-floor rhythms, and they never do; ‘mobile’ prioritizes both live performance and angular cell phone sonics; and ‘simian,’ regardless of what it may have meant for Simian, signals the sweaty, primitive, instinctual state it’s all meant to solicit.

Their albums have followed similar function-first logic. Attack Decay Sustain Release, pun aside, marked their triumphant emergence from the buzzing blogosphere with ten lean, mean bangers, the best and most popular of which -- including "It’s the Beat" and "Hustler" -- were named after their terse, relentless, and stunningly effective hooks. Then came Temporary Pleasure with ten more that were neither as lean nor as mean, but that boasted an enviable collaborative roster to help make up the difference. They nearly did. Or at least "Audacity of Huge", on which Yeasayer’s Chris Keating cheekily lamented conspicuous consumption’s empty yields, nearly did. But "Huge" was a brilliant fluke. The album’s remainder gelled into New Traditionalists-era synthpop that was fully functional but rarely very inspired.

Now there’s Unpatterns, which forgoes fancy collaborations for another source of indie cache: longform mopey drones. In place of the party-starters of Attack and Pleasure are nine party-enders, beat-driven as always but less propulsive than hypnotic. The name may have something to do with the album’s tendency to coax poorly matched loops into elegant coherence, and since this is clearly meant as headphones music -- Ford and Shaw have called Unpatterns their "psychedelic" turn -- that attention to structural integrity might be some formalist interest. Yet at the same time, it also clarifies all too well the album’s general monotony – of mood, of sound, of everything.

Using the same palette of hi-fi synths and lo-fi sensibilities that mobilized Attack and Pleasure, Ford and Shaw have fashioned Unpatterns as an ambient version of their previous work. By doing so, they appeal to the strand of contemporary techno that draws warmth out of the typically stark microhouse aesthetic. This particular but generative style is most frequently traced to Cologne’s Kompakt Records, but exemplified also by Switzerland’s Robag Whrume, Brazil’s Gui Boratto, and Sweden’s Axel Willner, a.k.a. the Field. At first glance what unites these artists is the faith that repetition and minimization lead straight to the solar plexis, and Simian Mobile Disco has composed Unpatterns accordingly. So much of it -- "Cerulean", "A Species Out of Control", "Interference", and "Your Love Ain’t Fair" especially -- launch with brisk, restless beats that promise outer space, only to rein it in at coasting altitude and stay there.

At second glance and beyond, however, Kompakt et al do what they do so well not by avoiding melodic effusions, but by indulging them -- ad nauseum. The minor key mini-hooks of exemplars like Boratto’s "No Turning Back", Jürgen Paape’s "So Weit Wie Noch Nie", and Superpitcher’s "Happiness" are so intimate and generous in and of themselves that their trance-like repetition has a transcendent effect. Simian Mobile Disco, on the other hand, stays at a distance. The faceless "alien choirs" and "broken hearted robots" (the artists’ terms, not mine) that echo across the mix amount to ghostly static without much in the way of actual feeling. Only on "Seraphim" and "Put Your Hands Together" does their campy desperation approach a fever pitch, but those tracks’ cold effervescence defuses any telegraphed catharsis. "Seraphim" even starts off sounding like a warehouse party heard from outside -- a fitting milieu for the album as a whole.

Unpatterns puts Simian Mobile Disco into a sort of double bind. The no-nonsense craftsmanship their name announces in advance enables them -- perhaps even behooves them -- to diversify. Indeed, after stamping their passport in weekend-warrior electro, cheeky synthpop, and now ambient microhouse, without ever mystifying their distinct sonic identity, Ford and Shaw could claim freedom of movement as the third meaning of 'mobile'. But the aloof formalism behind their brash hooks and winking sense of humor dulls the impact of their latest effort. Unpatterns is long on proficiency, but short on pathos, and not particularly innovative, either. Simian Mobile Disco has always hailed a curious indie listener, who will no doubt approach this album with an open mind. But even lacking literacy in its dance music heritage, that listener, emotionally unengaged, may quickly lose patience with Unpatterns’ brooding uniformity.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image