Absolutely Free’s first album, in 2014, was nominated for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize. In the past seven years, the trio have composed film scores and put out a handful of singles and EPs, but Aftertouch is the first full-length they’ve released since that debut. Having come up in the 2000s, experimental rock group DD/MM/YYYY, Absolutely Free still retain some of that restless experimental spirit. Aftertouch, though, is more of a pop album that sometimes uses unusual musical ideas as accents. After listening to this record many times, I wish it was more experimental. Instead, it turns out to be a meticulously conceived and well-performed record that’s often a bit dull.
“Epilogue”, the album opener, begins with a fast-ticking, cymbal-like sound and a collection of synth chords. Those chords are either in slow washes or fast rhythms to complement the ticking. After about 50 seconds, a bassline and melody kick in, very much in an old-school synthpop mode. Matt King’s high tenor voice is suited to this material, reminiscent of ’80s acts like the Thompson Twins. “Epilogue” is an excellent approximation of the style, but it lacks the strong hook that would make the song memorable on its own. Instead, the ticking noise and the original basic melody accompanying it are the most striking things about the track.
This is Aftertouch‘s biggest recurring issue. The second track and first single, “How to Paint Clouds”, starts with an interesting polyrhythmic percussion intro, but it’s wholly bowled over after 15 seconds by the main synth melody. An approximation of that rhythm continues in a more straightforward form on a snare drum, but without the original complexity, it isn’t nearly as engaging. King again sings in a pleasant high tenor voice, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about his vocal line. The descending synth line that accompanies the verses is solid, but it isn’t hooky enough to make up for the vocal melody. The bridge features a building bassline and synth part, but the vocals don’t push to a climax. Instead, the bridge dissolves into the outro, nearly a minute of slow synth washes that gradually fade away.
“Remaining Light” has a very cool xylophone pattern as its opening theme, nicely accompanied in brief moments by echoing piano. Absolutely Free lets the song develop slowly, taking a full 2:20 before the vocals start. Various synth and piano patterns gradually become more critical because the xylophone pattern never changes, relentlessly chipping away at its novelty. King’s vocals on the chorus are tightly harmonized, giving him a bit more strength than on most of these tracks. It ends up being a reasonably strong synthpop ballad with a somewhat buried message about violence. However, the xylophone intro makes it feel like it could’ve been so much more.
Other tracks have similar songwriting deficiencies. “Still Life” has a cool buzzing, wobbly synth riff, and occasional flute flourishes flitting through the background. But the listless vocal melody and the very static instrumental accompaniment don’t justify a nearly six-minute song. “Interface” doesn’t have a whole lot going for it, but at 3:19, it’s the record’s shortest track by almost a minute. So the occasional stabs of guitar and its even more occasional sparkling synth riff keep it afloat for its relatively brief running time.
A few tracks break out of this malaise. “Are They Signs” uses early ’80s synth sounds to give it a nice, retro-futuristic feel. After the first verse, a catchy low register guitar riff pops up and goes through variations during the track. Bassist Mike Claxton gives the song an active, melodic low end, and King’s singing lifts the music when he hits the high notes. Closer “Morning Sun” begins with lush, high-end synths straight out of the mid-’80s and then backs way off to a simple bass and drum groove. The melancholy mood set by the groove and the simple refrain, “Open my eyes / To find nothing changes ohhhh”, create a better atmosphere than many of these tracks, and the drum-heavy outro finishes the album on an energetic note.
The upbeat “Clear Blue Sky” is the only song on the album in which the message of the lyrics comes through loud and clear right away. Over a reverb-heavy, chiming, very ’80s guitar riff, King sings about our overreliance on technology. In a sparkling falsetto, he says, “You gave all your rights / Up to satellites / You can’t say that / You don’t use them every day.” At one point, a synth doubles the vocal melody; at another, there’s an elementary guitar solo. These bits are effective because the main melody is good, and there’s a clear lyrical point. Absolutely Free aren’t entirely relying on atmosphere to sell this song, and in the process, they manage to create an atmosphere that they are an actual band playing together and enjoying themselves. There’s an appealing live looseness to the drumming and guitar here that is absent from much of the rest of Aftertouch.
These occasional glimpses of creativity offer a tantalizing look at what might have been. From a performance and recording standpoint, Aftertouch is top-notch. The album sounds great. Absolutely Free have interesting musical ideas, and ’80s synthpop is a musical style with many assets, despite its reputation for cheesiness. This record too often gets hung up on the pastiche, though, approximating the style without adding much else. It would probably work to a certain extent, but the band tend to let their songs drift past the five-minute mark. This length exposes them when the melodic or arrangement ideas aren’t quite strong enough, which is why only a couple of these tracks were able to hold my attention consistently.