Stereolab's Tim Gane and a couple of friends try out retro instrumental synth-rock, with catchy, impressive results.
Cavern of Anti-Matter’s debut album is a mixture of expansive synth-based explorations and shorter, more melody-focused pieces. The band, featuring Stereolab leader Tim Gane on guitars and synths, original Stereolab drummer Joe Dilworth, and synth expert Holger Zapf, has an inherent grasp of melody and flow that makes Void Beats / Invocation Trex listenable even when the songs cross the eight-minute mark.
Cavern of Anti-Matter, by virtue of their fondness for vintage synth tones, often sound like they’re creating scores for sci-fi B-movies circa 1975-1985. The epic, nearly 13-minute opener “tardis cymbals”, serves as both their mission statement and a sterling example of how effectively the band handles long-form music. The track lays down a catchy bass synth riff and complements it with a simple hi-hat loop, and lets everything else spin off from that bed. Guitars flit in and out, twinkling synth figures ghost over the top, and an organ shows up here and there, sometimes with a melody, sometimes with chords. There’s no single main melody here; there’s just the bass and cymbal bedrock. Instead the song features a succession of melodic ideas that nicely intertwine with the bedrock and then fade away. It’s equally easy to imagine “tardis cymbals” backing a chase scene from Logan’s Run or some sort of industrial training video featuring robots and assembly lines.
The album’s three other long tracks are also quite effective. “hi-hats bring the hiss” is built around a sinister synth bass riff, intense, almost punk-style drums, and chiming minor-key guitar notes. The track gets a lot of mileage out of shifting tones, as little breaks in the groove find the drums becoming drum machines and then going back to analog. The bass riff shifts around similarly, keeping the song sonically interesting despite the relatively static melody. “pantechnicon” brought me back to 1990, as Cavern of Anti-Matter nailed the bright synth sound of the Sega Genesis’ epic sci-fi role-playing game Phantasy Star II. “pantechnicon” is much more reliant on melody, featuring a theme in the high synths that the song returns to again and again and skeletal variations of that theme throughout the track. “void beat” begins in laid back fashion until about a third of the way through, when the energy is amped up by the addition of classic breakbeat style drumming. The song then alternates between sections with little or no percussion to more propulsive spots where the drums come back. The exact timing of these switches is unpredictable, which goes a long way towards retaining the listener’s attention.
The balance of Void Beats / Invocation Trex is made up of shorter pieces. The most distinctive of these tracks are the two with vocals. “planetary folklore” features a portentous voiceover courtesy of Sonic Boom from Spaceman 3. While the voiceover is clearly audible, it’s also clearly nonsense, so it becomes part of the firmament of the song and not its focus. And yet it’s clearly meant to be the focus, so the rest of the song has less interesting music than usual, which makes the whole thing fall flat. “Liquid Gate”, by contrast, is a two-minute slice of straight-up indie rock featuring Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox on vocals. The song comes in and goes out so quickly that it feels like it ends before it’s really getting started. But it’s a really good track that gives a brief glimpse into what Cavern of Anti-Matter could do if they were interested in being a rock band.
Most of the other tracks on the album take a good musical idea or two and explore them in a much more concise fashion than on the band’s more exploratory pieces. “insect fear” puts a simple organ figure front and center and supports it with an upbeat synth loop and energetic drumming. Chord changes provide contrast until the song’s final minute, when the organ disappears and the synth sounds modulate downward into something distorted and creepy. “melody in high feedback tones” is essentially a mid-tempo instrumental rock song, putting the interaction between high range clean guitar strumming and a bass guitar front and center. “echolalia” relies on a wobbly, bubbly bassline to drive it, then augments it with a series of complementary melodies. In the song’s final minute, many of the previous melodies resurface and lock together in a clever bit of arrangement.
Gane, with his long experience in a band more oriented towards pop songwriting (though admittedly far left of center pop songwriting), guides this band with a steady, assured hand. By focusing on simple, catchy melodies and loops and interesting drum rhythms, Cavern of Anti-Matter avoid many of the traps their peers in both the instrumental and electronic disciplines fall into. That focus keeps Void Beats / Invocation Trex consistently entertaining, especially on its longest compositions.