It’s often said that there are only two types of art—good and bad—and that rings especially true for music that more or less defies categorization. Such is the case with Buke and Gase, a New York duo comprised of Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez who’ve been labeled as indie rock, “steampunk art-folk”, and math rock, among other things. However, their latest LP, Scholars, most curiously and creatively exemplifies how they “make pop music in the most insane way possible”. Filled with atypical instrumentation, production, and structures that somehow coalesce into wholly accessible tunes, it’s an imaginative and eccentric gem and a great start to the 2019 music scene.
Scholars is the follow-up to 2013’s General Dome. In the interim, they kept busy with projects with Bon Iver, the National, Polyphonic Workshop, and Mistresses, as well as worked on “a major refinement & modernization of their instrumental creations—and embraced electronic music”; as such, they “stopped being defined by the instruments which gave them their name” (baritone ukulele, guitar, and bass) and even considered changing their moniker to Scholars (so the album title is a good compromise). Narrowed down from dozens of possible songs, this newest outing successfully “embrace[s] a form of expression that is more concise, more emotional, and less perverse in its uniqueness” than its predecessors; in doing so it, it strikes a strong balance of approachable hooks and experimental production that any fan of genre-splicing music should enjoy.
On the welcomingly commercial side, “Grips” is the biggest earworm, as its programmed percussion and miscellaneous dissonant elements (such as an ascending guitar pattern) are oxymoronically used as the backdrop for the record’s most fetchingly poppy chorus. Elsewhere, the title track and “Wrong Side” find Dyer capturing the angelic punk panic of Eisley and ’90s Gwen Stafani on top of what could easily be industrial lost arrangements from the Fiery Furnaces. Near the end, “Flock” is a gorgeously off-kilter computerized dreamscape with erratic yet lovely melodic shifts and slick multilayered vocals, while “Eternity” is what would happen if classic Kate Bush tried to do EDM (in all the best ways). From start to finish, Scholars remains pleasingly penetrable.
That said, the duo’s peculiar avant-garde leanings still permeate each track and dominant a few. Opener “Stumbler” is essentially an apocalyptic loop with madcap electronic manipulations, while the aptly called “Temporary” is like a sparse intermezzo fusion of early rock and roll with Radiohead’s “Kid A”. Likewise, hip-hop beats and horns, coupled with various otherworldly sprinkles, make “Derby” adventurously dystopic. “Qi Ball” is a minute-long repetitious laundromat soundscape, and the equally brief “Ranger” finishes the sequence as an even more abstract and changeable collage. Even at its most nonmusical and cohesive, the album still intrigues with its unconventional hodgepodges.
Despite channeling the aforementioned artists—as well as Stereolab throughout—Buke and Gase remain remarkably idiosyncratic and audacious on Scholars. Every piece tweaks the overarching formula with enough unpredictability and originality to feel distinguished, and Dyer’s voice is nearly as mutable while almost always maintaining its silky allure. In an age when the most celebrated artists tend to be the most complacently riskless for mainstream appeal, it’s usually the underdogs who push boundaries the most within their unique identities. On Scholars, Buke and Gase continue to do precisely that.