Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked
Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.
South of Heaven
13 March 2020
Fotocrime is the musical project of R. (known by his initial only), a man who sings, writes, and plays most of the instruments on South of Heaven, the project's second album. South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time. It's not a bad album, per se, just kind of boring.
R.'s main influences are a host of different '80s acts, as there is a lot of Depeche Mode, some of the Cure, and even hints of Faith No More in his mid-tempo goth-rock sound. "Invisible" opens the album with a simple, pulsing drumbeat, accented by brief guitar bursts and slightly creepy synth notes. Then R. comes in on vocals, speak-singing in a monotone baritone range voice with very little emotion.
Intentionally or not, "Invisible" sets the template for the rest of the album. There are one or two elements of the song that are, if not compelling, at least interesting, but not enough to carry the entire track. The song itself doesn't really change much once it's established, so it relies on groove, and that isn't enough either. A strong vocal performance with a good melody could also make the difference, but R. shows again and again on South of Heaven that he is not a strong singer.
"Foto on Wire" shows the limits of jagged guitars and energetic drumming when the melody and hooks are completely absent. "Hold Me in the Night" is a drum-free piano ballad that is utterly inert without decent vocals to drive it. "Blue Smoke" works up a decent '80s rock vibe and is buttressed by backing vocals from Janet Morgan, but it doesn't have enough to really stand out.
There are a few songs where the other elements make up for or at least come close to making up for, R.'s vocals. "Never Fall Out of Love" has a rumbling, distorted synth and guitar riff that's nicely complemented by an effective high-end two-note synth burble. It's a track that, with a heavier low end and a more effective singer, could easily pass for a lost early Nine Inch Nails B-side. "Expulsion From Paradise" combines good guitar playing and solid rhythm section work with pretty cool monster-oriented lyrics. R. still isn't good as a singer here, but the song, with its strong guitar work and catchy groove, is solid enough that it manages to work despite that.
"Expulsion From Paradise" would be what passes for a highlight on South of Heaven if it wasn't for "Tough Skin", the record's closer. A New Order-ish synth and drums combo establishes the groove, then adds cool additional synth and percussion sounds as the song goes on. It helps that R. shows emotion here as well, sadly lamenting a breakup with more melody than usual, climaxing with the chorus, "I'll pretend that I've got tough skin / Tough skin / Tough skin." It even includes a simple but effective guitar solo near the end. The song has so much more life and energy than the rest of the album that it makes me wonder what R. thinks he's doing on those other songs.
South of Heaven is an album that has trouble holding the listener's attention. Its lack of hooks and middling grooves makes it fade quickly, becoming background music. The songs are often frustratingly half-baked as if R. decided on the sound and musical elements he wanted to use and maybe came up with a beat or a riff and decided that was enough. It's not enough, and a fully baked song like "Tough Skin", that manages to succeed even with R.'s limited vocals, shows that there is potential for Fotocrime to do solid retro-style goth-rock. But this album doesn't get there.