It begins with the sound of a helicopter. Where are we going?, you wonder. Maybe you conjure up images of Apocalypse Now. You smell the napalm as you dangle out the side of your chopper surveying … what exactly? The sound of the chopper’s rotor is suddenly punctuated with a pleasingly rendered mechanical growl — a repetitive, monstrous stomp which paints the picture of a bleak dystopian future. We’re suddenly addressed by a glitchy automated female voice. (A future Siri, corrupted on a hacked up iPhone?) She menacingly delivers “The Assignment” to those she’s addressing as “Gentlemen”, veteran DJ/producer Mike Weir (Mindbender, to you), and producer Alex King (Kill the Alex). The duo make up Phoenix, Arizona’s electronic body music (EBM) project, Blakopz. And what is the assignment? To “destroy the dancefloor”, of course. Your presence on this recently declared battlefield is announced with the bomb-like drop of a kick drum. So begins Blood Sweat and Fear, their Death Watch Asia debut.
Industrial music has two billion subgenres, give or take. Sometimes it seems there’s one created for just about every available artist but this sound is fairly easily pegged as straight ahead dark techno layered over with snarling filtered vocals. Blakopz is unapologetic in their delivery. This is old-school, European influenced EBM the dark side of your soul might spin were you to throw a party in its honor. This is the calculated construction of techno DJs with a healthy respect for the dance floor and for European flavoured industrial music. Swooping basslines meet bright synth riffs and a ricocheting vocal hollaback! — GO!
A march-tempo beat-down begins with the prerequisite industrial detuned bass line on impressive opener “Brainwashed”. This is one of two tracks on the record that could be called a club anthem — if your club is the sort where everyone is wearing iron-on exoskeletons, goggles, patent leather, camo or some combination thereof. This is industrial aggression at its most fresh and appealing. In fact, every track here is well-conceived, well-constructed and begs to bend the walls of your subwoofers. The overall production quality is outstanding for a debut record. The influence of techno DJ prowess is unmistakable here from the simple breaks at the end of phrases to the audience-friendly pacing of every track on the record. Where other comparable bands such as Shiv-R tend toward a comparatively monotonous selection of drum patterns, the kick-drum and cascading snares which open “Brainwashed” give way not to the brash and sudden synth you might expect but one which stalks you slowly through the third phrase and eventually rises to introduce the vocal sound that will be assaulting you for the rest of the record.
The vocals are something a lot of industrial bands do poorly. In a quest to find the darkest, most sinister-sounding vocal filters, bands can easily go too far, creating a character that washes up over the track with about as much contrived audio evil as a beach full of sea foam. Indeed my personal pet peeve with many new industrial records is the pervasive over-dramatization that results from trying too hard to sound “gothic” and instead coming across as just silly. Menace is a delicate art and Blakopz absolutely nail it on this record. The vocals not only sound appropriately sinister but the mix is spot-on, allowing the synths and percussion their due stomping room. The verses echo back and forth between your headphones, inspiring shouts of allegiance to a fantasy army — be wary of absent-mindedly marching militantly on your morning commute.
Excited now, we maintain the pace with “Hunted”, a straight-ahead instrumental banger where our female audio computer guide shows up again to remind us (rather repetitively this time) that “you cannot run, you cannot hide, this is your fate / we will always find you.” Comparisons to Combichrist will no doubt be provoked by this track. That’s all they feel the need to give you here — for the next six minutes. The track stops abruptly and the patterns become marginally more complex for “Pretty Lies”, where the vocals re-emerge among synth stabs to carry you further across the field of battle. It’s worth noting here that, even though not a whole lot of the format has changed, each song manages nonetheless to be memorable in its own way. The differences are subtle but significant. This is a record that sustains your interest through repeated listening.
I mentioned earlier the attention to pacing and that’s very apparent on the next track. As if they knew this is where 4-4 fatigue might kick in, they slow the pace just a little for “Who Drugged Me?”, the first of several tracks which feature the requisite appearance by a label or genre-mate — a strategy which works as well for industrial music as it always has for hip hop. Mighty Mike Saga, Philadelphia-based DJ, and promoter, contributes on this track. The most notable difference is a lighter, more atmospheric sounding vocal character. Other notable appearances are closer to the end of the record and include Rexx Arkana of FGFC820, Terrorkode and the increasingly ubiquitous Die Sektor.
It’s on the track “Domino (One by One)” that Blakopz hit their peak. The combination of steadily mounting bass, a drop that enters the proceedings like an axe enters a skull, and vocal phrasing borrowing more from anthemic metal than anything electro, makes for a perfect storm. Their directive to destroy the dance floor is now culminating in the first signs of its distress. The band pushes every button here as if they’ve known the pulse of aggressive industrial music all along but until now have simply restrained themselves. If this track is at all representative of what Blakopz might continue to do then I predict big things. This is the fan-maker, the cross-over track that you could play for that friend whose electronic music catalog is wholly comprised of Skrillex and Deadmau5 remixes. “Domino!”, they scream through the refrain before concluding that, “One by one, they all fall down.” Indeed. I’ve already fallen.
“It’s Not Human v2.0” takes us down a similar path to “Who Drugged Me?” as if offering some post-trauma reprieve to what was delivered on the previous track. Here we get more straight-ahead dark trance-influence with a familiar “worried girl” trope sample repeating throughout. On “United”, Rex Arkana brings his vocal style (and effects) straight from his own FGFC820. The synths are signature Blakopz and something that this far into the record are emerging as a specialty of the duo. It’s easy for synth riffs to sound like post-production add-ons pounded out to fill space but here they all seem to belong.
The album rounds out with “Hell Inside”, “March of the Unknown”, and then “Injustice for All”, which borrows beautifully from acid techno. Finaly we revisit the tracks we’ve already come to love with three remixes, the most notable of which is Die Sektor’s take on “Blackout”. It’s arguably more appealing than the original if only for their adeptness at taking what was fairly straight forward and warping it into something far more abstract. The isolation of Blakopz vocals draws a focus to them that hasn’t been heard so far and reveals just how sinister they are. The track serves, whether intentionally or not, as a counterpoint to the rest of the record, twisting the synths further into something unmistakably Die Sektor but still complimentary — the final crushing collapse of our dancefloor into a pile of twisted rubble.
“Gentlemen!” Assignment complete.