It’s not the voice of Asia Argento that makes the first single and opening track of Munk’s new album, Cloudbuster, work. Sure, she’s sexy but, if you weren’t told, would you care? Here’s what’s interesting about the track, what ends up fueling a tension that lasts through the whole album. You might be tempted to dismiss Munk as one of those jokey electro acts in the style of Fischerspooner, all overstated funk and disaffected vocals. At first glance, the album looks flimsy with three interludes whimsically called “Interludus” 1, 2 and 3; a couple of tracks with predominant vocals in a sultry Italian; and, oh, that opening track. Is the title — “Live Fast! Die Old!” — a reference to that Ricky Gervais line in Season 2 of The Office? Does the sneaky Christopher Walken name-drop serve any function other than to make you think, as Fatboy Slim once famously did, that this artist is completely down with irony?
Mathias Modica, the German head of the well-respected Gomma record label, is the producer behind Munk, an act whose emphasis on disco had it well ahead of the curve when their debut, Aperitivo, was released in 2005. You may have heard a couple of the standout club tracks. “Kick Out the Chairs!” (with James Murphy) and “Disco Clown” (subsequently remixed by Digitalism, among others) have both found some recognition over the last few years. So now that the rest of the electronic scene is growing tired of minimal house and looking for more exuberant, lighter fare, is there room for another flat-voiced, ironic cocaine electrofunk album? Well, Munk certainly hope so. Rather than just slot in where you expect, Modica approaches the new album with a keen sense of the tension between the urge to move psych-funk instills and the pop titillation of arch irony. And so, while tracks like “Down in L.A.” attack pseudo-retro cool with a disco sparkle, all Chevrolets and “the high school hop”, later in the album, we’re presented with a slab of songs that are more clearly utilitarian. “The Rat Race” is still squarely pop-focused — the prominence of vocals throughout the album means that these songs are equally successful in the car as in the club — but also captures the danger and sleaze of new disco’s low end. Like a poppier the Knife, or — occasionally — a Black Spiderman version image of Jamie Liddell. Or a more visceral WhoMadeWho.
OK, so there are plenty of other artists out there who are stylistically or temperamentally similar to Munk. And it’s when the act’s most like these that it’s least successful: that jokey aspect where the lyrics undermine whatever innovative sounds are going on underneath. Nobody will remember the altered-vocal interludes or the random clips of spoken word; they set a certain tone, not much more. In a song called “No Milk”, the vocalist builds up into a tantrum of dislike: “I don’t want milk / I don’t want lemonade … I just hade bikes … Fuck milk, and fuck lemonade”. As the vocals become more intoxicated, it’s easy to miss that the music is building complexity; it’s actually what gives the song its strung-along quality.
And the most satisfying parts of the album are when Munk drop this façade of cool and show off their considerable talents in the craft of songwriting. Whether it’s rattling ’80s guitars, steely funk, or even an unexpected flute drone, Modica demonstrates he’s easily capable of marrying Italian passion with Teutonic idealism to create a subtle, rewarding version of an essentially familiar genre. In his future work, there’s no doubt that these tensions and complexities will continue to evolve, and that Munk may well grow larger and more influential. Hopefully, they’ll remain as fun and cool as they are today.