Last year was a testament to the excellence of the ever-burgeoning music scene in Brooklyn. Two releases from that scene made my top ten: Liturgy’s highly controversial, genre-defying black metal treatise Aesthethica, and Warm Ghost’s Narrows, a record criminally overlooked for sonically similar but less impressive “chillwave” releases like Washed Out’s Within and Without. I began to notice this stream of excellent bands coming from Brooklyn during the middle of last year; as someone who splits time between California and Oregon, I’m usually attuned to the San Francisco and Portland scenes. As the recent SNL sketch “The Californians” can attest to, the West/East coast divide still exists, and in various ways we both perceive each other as something like wackjobs. For me, the unfortunate side effect of this is that I often don’t take the time to really examine sites of musical innovation across the country, which are many. (Plus, as a prog nerd, I tend to assume anything from the UK is worth my time.) Now that I’ve begun to keep a close eye on the music coming out of Brooklyn, all sorts of exciting material has come across my desk.
One Brooklyn group that’s done a good job in catching media attention is the Light Asylum, the duo of Shannon Funchess (vocals and instruments) and Bruno Coviello (instruments and production). During my interview last year with Paul Duncan, the lead vocalist of Warm Ghost, he referenced how at a show he performed with Light Asylum, he really had felt the unitive spirit of many Brooklyn bands. And while Warm Ghost’s texture-heavy sonic isn’t a perfect match to Light Asylum’s straightforward, dark synth attack, both are excellent enough duos in their own right that to see them live would indeed be an experience. With their In Tension EP, Light Asylum came out the gates strong: It’s hard to deny the utter power of “Dark Allies,” the lead cut off of the EP: beginning with a harp-like synth effect, the song then builds into a brooding bit of synth-pop, magnetically dominated by the Funchess’ vocals. Though the beats and synth textures of Light Asylum are to be lauded, what really makes this duo stand out in an ever-growing synth pop genre is Funchess.
There have been many comparisons made to her voice, Grace Jones most notably. These aren’t without merit, but it’s really a disservice to how one-of-a-kind her vocal presence is. Her booming contralto is the driving force behind the success of Light Asylum; without it, this would have been a cool but largely unmemorable exercise in synth-pop. (Some have begun to classify the duo as “darkwave,” which I will not endorse here. I would go so far as to say that any new genre names with the suffix “-wave” ought to be dispelled from the critical lexicon, “chillwave” included.) Just by the quality of her voice the music becomes that much more engaging, and at times enthralling. So enthralling, in fact, that James Murphy mentioned one of the reasons he wanted to leave LCD Soundsystem behind was so he could produce bands like Light Asylum. If that doesn’t get hipsters everywhere with a “darkwave” playlist on their iTunes riled up, then I don’t know what will.
Now with a full album release of music, Light Asylum have more or less solidified their stance as an outfit to be taken seriously. Some may attempt to write off Funchess’ goth biker-chick look as kitsch; however, it’s anything but. This is some seriously dark synth-pop; while the choices of synth tones are often not dark in of themselves, the mood created throughout is one reminiscent of dark dance floors, where the uncertainty of night has just begun to kick in. At times, this ramps up to pure aggression on tracks like “At Will,” which musically is what I imagine Rage Against the Machine sounding like if they were in the business of synth-heavy music. (Play the synth riff through a distorted, downtuned guitar… you’ll see what I mean.) Fortunately, the duo doesn’t merely rely on bellicose electronic sounds and Funchess’ occasional bellows to make their point; this record has something of a heart, too. “A Certain Person,” included here despite its previous appearance on In Tension, is quite affecting, and its at-face simple lyrical pleas end up conveying much deeper feelings of loss and nostalgia: “Walk the city streets at night / Such a pretty sight / When it’s dark on the inside / Where are you now?”
But when Light Asylum is listened to in one sit-through, a glaring problem begins to reveal itself. Take the album’s catchiest moment, “IPC.” It has a lot going for it: a pretty cool beat (imagine The xx sped up), some well-played synth arpeggios, and a simple but catchy chorus (“Nobody’s innocent / Nobody’s innocent no more”). Funchess and Coviello know their strengths, and on every track they play to them. While this may seem like a formula to stick to throughout the entirety of the album, after awhile it begins to dig the record into a repetitious rut. If I began listening with the first track, I would get bored after the third song. But then if I picked up the album later and began with, say, the sixth track, I would be really into it for a few songs, after which I got bored again. This plays like a collection of similarly excellent singles, which is great in bite-size pieces but not as a cohesive whole. Pairing them side by side actually has the effect of watering some of the tracks down. Synth effects are cool (especially ones like the orchestra hits on “Pope Will Roll”), but as any aspiring musician with ProTools knows, you can only experiment with those cool sounds for so long. Playing around with beats can be cool, but after awhile it becomes fruitless. And so on.
This undercuts the album’s excellence in a pretty significant way, which is a damn shame. The talent of both Funchess and Coviello is noteworthy; I wouldn’t hesitate to include them amongst the best musicians coming out of the Brooklyn scene now. But merely knowing one’s skill set is not enough to ensure a great debut; you actually have to diversify and make the individual moments unify with the grander scheme of the record. For that reason, I’d say that at this point Light Asylum’s significance has yet to be fully realized; while the missteps on this LP are enough to suggest that the duo hasn’t quite blossomed yet, the potential here is so obvious that to push them aside for these flaws would be irresponsible. Despite its imperfections, Light Asylum is a must-listen for those interested in synth-pop or the Brooklyn scene in general, and Light Asylum are a band worth keeping on the radar. All of the individual pieces are here; it’s just a matter of putting them together into something brilliant. And if the sage songwriting that dominates Light Asylum is to continue into the future, then I have no doubt something great is just on the horizon.