Music

Fuck Buttons: Slow Focus

As visceral and astringent as it is seductive and poised, the Bristol duo's latest album of electro-noise epics is a triumph, and oddly danceable to boot.


Fuck Buttons

Slow Focus

Label: ATP
US Release Date: 2013-07-23
UK Release Date: 2013-07-22
Label website
Amazon
iTunes

One of the most cogent exegeses of Bristol's Fuck Buttons comes courtesy of Youtube user Benalski241. His is the top-voted comment attached to an unofficial upload of "Sweet Love for Planet Earth", the opening track of the duo’s debut, Street Horssing. Verbatim, he writes:

"I had my girlfriend [sic] in my bed and things got hot and heavy. This song came on and we where [sic] going at it. It was beautiful. I forgot about the screaming segment and when it came my girl stopped and looked at me and said "wtf? This is scarying [sic] me." We broke up since that night. A girl who can appreciate my music easily has my love. :) Don't F with Fuck Buttons."

The bros-before-hos rebel-yell aside, the context of coitus fits Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power's indie noise epics unexpectedly well. Like anything since Metal Machine Music all too happy to bear the banner of "noise," Fuck Buttons coaxes primal urgency from sonic dysfunction. But unlike Lou Reed's masterpiece of provocation, Hung and Power want to make the pleasures of dissonance accessible. It doesn't take rarefied ears to hear the widescreen beauty of "Sweet Love", "Bright Tomorrow", and anything from Tarot Sport, their much-loved 2009 follow-up. In fact, Tarot Sport does away with any "screaming segment" entirely, as if answering the complaints of Benalski241's hapless ex-girlfriend. Perhaps Fuck Buttons' non sequitor moniker echoes the mission to facilitate, not interrupt, your sex life.

But maybe that meant that Tarot Sport was ingratiating to a fault, and that "The Lisbon Maru", "Olympians", and "Flight of the Feathered Serpent" in particular were heavy-handed in their commitment to blowing music box hooks up to pipe organ size. For Slow Focus, Hung and Power have nuanced their approach, and the difference is tremendous. Where Tarot Sport alternated between mirth and agitated "palate cleansers," in the words of Dusted Magazine's Jennifer Kelly, Fuck Buttons' third full-length is founded upon anxious slasher synths, ominous hip-hop breaks, and everything in-between, like a soundtrack co-written by John Carpenter and RZA is music buff heaven. In mood, meanwhile, Slow Focus explores a more robust and inventive iteration of Street Horssing's slow-burn menace, which was potent enough, but bound to tried-and-true tactics like tribal drumming and the aforementioned screaming. In both cases, Fuck Buttons rested perhaps too easily on blunt notions of the ugly and the sublime. Slow Focus represents a departure into more mature territory.

The result is an album that stands up to many, many listens, despite its basically repetitive nature. Consider how "Prince's Prize" contrasts a simple three-cord ambient figure with overstuffed, degraded arpeggios. Or how the harsh, maxed-out analogs of "The Red Wing" seem to signify both hope and despair at the same time. Such attention to detail marks Slow Focus as for earwig addicts, by the same. Indeed, the Deep Note-like bass that surges in and out of "Year of the Dog" seems specifically engineered to flatter receptive speaker systems. More significantly, Hung and Power no longer fill out their minimalist structures with walls of fuzz, which has, by now, become a cliché in most quarters of the music world. "Stalker", boasting the leanest, meanest beat I've heard on any song this year, makes an irrefutable case for this more judicious deployment of noise. Its fierce, sinister grandeur, at once severe and sexy, suggests that maybe Benalski241 and his ex should give things another shot.

Not that it would necessarily be an easy sell: the charging drums that open "Brainfreeze" announce from the very start that Slow Focus isn't interested in being gentle. But then they yield to a colossal tick-tick-bump and a chorus of industrial loops just barely keeping it together, and only the most rigid body could remain unmoved, even as those loops coagulate into a sonically simulated ice-cream headache. Such is the triumph of Slow Focus: visceral but poised, mannered but emotionally lucid, seductive but astringent, cacophonous but, yes, focused, the album finds Hung and Power charting kaleidoscopic tableaux out of giddy contradictions with the confidence of dancefloor pros. And make no mistake: its left-field heritage notwithstanding, Fuck Buttons' latest is 2013's most unexpectedly danceable long-player. It's also one of the best-sounding, which in a summer of The 20/20 Experience, Random Access Memories, and Yeezus -- all major label pop albums varying degrees less danceable than expected -- meets unusually sterling competition. Indeed, it is one of the best, period, and erases any lingering uncertainty vis-à-vis Hung and Power’s chops as electro-noise practitioners. To conclude matters succinctly, I turn once again to the words of layman philosopher Benalski241: don't fuck with Fuck Buttons.

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