Simian Mobile Disco’s Tactile Triumph


Still not sick of this one either

This isn’t a particularly brilliant observation, and I’m pretty sure I already read someone from Justice making it in some interview somewhere, but the massed forces of the unstoppable-for-now nu-rave fad don’t actually have much of anything to do with vintage early-90s rave music; what they recall more than anything else is the late-90s big beat. Big beat was a lot of fun for a minute: drunken British slobs repurposing every super-obvious hook they could find and giving those hooks quick-and-cheap makeovers by smearing them with thumping 808s and removing anything that smacked of subtlety. But around the time “The Rockefeller Skank” showed up in every car commercial, big beat burned out just as quickly as it blew up. When those hooks wore themselves out, it became evident that the genre didn’t have much emotional range beyond jock-jam party-anthem drunkenness or, at the very most, the sort of swaggering dread that the Lo-Fidelity Allstars pulled off on How to Operate with a Blown Mind. Everyone’s already noticed that the Klaxons, the guys who invented the ridiculous nu-rave genre-tag, are basically just an uptight and jittery guitar-based Britpop band. But the same can’t be said of Ed Banger Records blog-house types like Justice, whose midrange-addled filter-metal bangers have the same problem as their Skint Records spiritual forbears: they’ve got coked-up delirium down, but they don’t have a whole lot to offer beyond that. The Ed Banger crew has become dance music’s big story this year, mostly because they riotously reject the austere gentility that’s run rampant in techno in recent years. And the riled-up adrenaline of Justice and their compadres has already produced a few great pop moments, like the fuzzbomb stomper “Waters of Nazareth,” maybe my favorite dance single of last year. But Justice has an album coming out soon, and I have a tough time believing that they’ll be able to sustain that level of excitement for more than a few minutes at a time; even their most recent singles, the damn-near identical “D.A.N.C.E.” and “B.E.A.T.,” let the energy-level dip without figuring out if anything should replace it. Still, I’m happy to report that one of blog-house’s standard-bearers has managed to craft a pretty great full-length. Simian Mobile Disco‘s Attack Decay Sustain Release doesn’t qualify as an emotional journey or anything, but it keeps it sensationalism moving, a very real accomplishment.

Simian Mobile Disco don’t exactly bring anything new to blog-house, but their tracks do have a certain fullness that’s often missing in the hyper-compressed whump of Justice. (Sorry to keep bringing Justice up as my token blog-house strawmen, but they’re far and away that scene’s most visible spokesmen, and their distorted-to-death aesthetic is indicative of most of the genre’s strengths and shortcomings.) SMD treat early-80s electro-funk the same way that, say, the Propellerheads treated 60s spy-movie themes. They take all the most obvious sonic signifiers of the genre (the heavily vocodered voices, the ghostly Kraftwerkian synth-washes, the bass-popping) and draft those signifiers into the service of pitched-up party-music that would sound pretty great soundtracking Levis commercials. But SMD never give the impression that they’re sacrificing coherence for frenzy, and their tracks are just as layered as anything I’ve heard from Kompakt. Half the tracks on Attack Decay Sustain Release have already trickled out as singles, but the duo has edited those tracks down for the album so that they’ll sound like the four-minute pop songs that maybe they always should’ve been. Those tracks usually start out as terse, brittle dance songs, but they always release the tension, introducing heartbreakingly gorgeous synth-melodies that elevate all the strobing chaos around them. “It’s the Beat” starts out riding on a Fergalicious vocal from the Go Team’s Ninja, but two minutes in, a sighing synth-bridge that overwhelms everything around it. “I Believe” brings in a stoned robo-soul vocal that lends a fluid cinematic grace to its blips and thumps. And so SMD manage a neat trick: at their best, they keep intact the sleazy, druggy magnetism of the sexy-as-hell “Hustler” video, but they also introduce woozy emotional resonance that carries the tracks beyond their initial buzz. As the limp album-closer “Scott” shows, they fall apart when they try to make prettiness without menace. Mostly, though, they walk the tightrope with remarkable assurance. I’m not saying that Attack Decay Sustain Release will keep its charms intact years from now, but it doesn’t need to. For the moment, there’s not a whole lot I’d rather hear.

SMD rose from the ashes of the forgettable Britpop band Simian; apparently, two of that band’s members saw the writing on the wall around the time that Justice remixed their song “Never Be Alone” and turned it into the world-destroying monster-jam “We Are Your Friends.” And they’ve kept foot in guitar-rock; James Ford, half of the duo, produced the most recent albums from the Klaxons and the Arctic Monkeys. Maybe I’m reading them wrong, but I’m guessing that their rock background is the reason they keep teary-eyed sweep and melodic lushness in the equation while their contemporaries remain content to pound away. In other words, it takes a guitar-rock grounding for blog-house to sound like actual dance music. It’s funny how these things work out.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 8, 2007

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