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.