Blaqk Audio: Cexcells

Blaqk Audio
Tiny Evil

While sipping punch at the Pop Music Prom Dance, the very thought of emo-rock and techno sharing the same dance card is about as likely as honky-tonk country going home with death metal by the end of the evening. Yet here we stand, glo-sticks dashed with eyeliner and hair-swooshes covered in frenzied dance-floor sweat. As most of the couples leave to go back to their parents’ house (or Madonna’s after-party, at least), one question remains: do we have a new subgenre here (progressive-emo-house?) or a unique little one-night stand?

As Blaqk Audio proves, it’s definitely the latter.

Despite tragically stupid spellings of the band name and the resulting album (Cexcells), Blaqk Audio is the side project of two members of the emo-rock outfit AFI: vocalist Davey Havok and guitarist/keyboard maestro Jade Puget. Of any modern-day rock group daring pick up a drum machine, AFI are remarkably suited to the occasion. As the years go by (and their popularity ascends), the former hardcore punk revivalists have morphed into emo-rock front runners that are rounded out by a rhythm section so precise you could almost call it “mechanical”. A glance at Blaqk Audio’s CD booklet reveals “all music, programming and keyboards by Jade Puget”, which, given the fully fleshed sound of the album, is nothing short of incredible. “Again, Again and Again” — loaded with keyboard reverb — is a fast, energetic club track that oddly recalls the innocuous vibe of that “Numa Numa” song (aka “Dragostea Din Tei” by O-Zone), while “On a Friday” has the feel of a blacklight icebreaker that wouldn’t be out of place at all in a huge outdoor rave. Puget has a great ear for melody, and though he may not always cook up the catchiest of hooks, he still manages to completely hold his own in a genre that’s usually roped-off to outsider productions.

Unfortunately, Puget also thought it would be a good idea to bring in Havok to handle all of the vocal/lyrical duties on the album. Though Havok’s voice has always been one of AFI’s more distinctive calling cards, it simply doesn’t work in an electronic context. Here it sounds strained, forced, and it’s never able to conquer the towering synth washes that surround it. Ultimately, Havok sounds overtly theatrical instead of being simple and direct (‘cos let’s face it: you’re not really paying attention to lyrics on the dance floor). For being the lead vocalist of the Blaqk Audio project, he comes off more as an afterthought than anything else. The same could be said for his lyrics, which tarnish the otherwise-stellar “Bitter for Sweet” (prime example: “Can you tell me what stopped the rain? / Where is salvation? / Science? Saviors? Tragedy?” — so much for coherent thought groups). Even with Havok’s unusual turns of phrase, it doesn’t help that Puget manages to repeat himself melodically more than a few times, particularly with the more ballad-styled songs — “Wake Up, Open the Door and Escape to the Sea”, “The Love Letter”, and “The Fear of Being Found” all kind of blur together, though the latter comes off as the strongest of the three. Needless to say, Cexcells is an album of decent songs and missed opportunities.

When Blaqk Audio clicks, however, the results can be nothing short of stunning. Excellent opener “Stiff Kittens” is a powerful thesis statement that the rest of the album deviates from in some way or another, and “Would You Like Them Where I Left?” could easily pass as a solid Depeche Mode B-side, but it’s “Semiotic Love” that is the real surprise. For being such a dark-themed electro experiment, “Semiotic Love” rides a melody that is — against all odds — joyous. Feel-good, even! Plus, Havok manages to reign in his voice a bit more than usual, coming off like the Cure’s Robert Smith lost in a field of strobe lights. Perhaps the biggest downfall of Cexcells is simply how these highlights are lost amidst a slew of songs that are merely decent, making the album appear more one-note than it actually is.

When the Pop Music Prom Band stops playing, you know it’s time to go home. Some of those one-night stands will seem like very bad ideas in the morning (country and hip-hop? Run, Cowboy Troy!), but some of them may even be — dare we say it? — fun. Though it’s highly unlikely that emo and techno will never go out again, at least they can look back on Blaqk Audio and say “You know, it wasn’t great, but we both could’ve done a lot worse.” Then again, there’s always next year’s Prom …

RATING 5 / 10