(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Recording review: Bassnectar, Noise vs. Beauty (2014)

Trippy, danceable, and catchy as hell

Go ahead, judge Bassnectar’s latest release by its cover. Bits of analog are scattered into the digital interstices, the repetitive patterns turn out to be somewhat irregular and it’s not clear what the overarching meaning is, although one is implied. Noise vs. Beauty delivers on all of that as it juxtaposes both titular elements in a fairly satisfying proportion. Longtime fans will find plenty of the throb, grind, and intensity they’d expect, but Bassnectar continues to color outside the traditional electronic lines, which makes him accessible to other audiences.

He indulges his predilection for crossing the organic with synthetic sounds right from the start. The opening track, “F.U.N.”, is a collaboration with Seth Drake, remixing one of Drake’s original symphonies. It launches with a lightly reverbed piano motif that is quickly woven into a pretty tapestry, with synth string layers and delicately echoed tones. This intro creates a sense of plans unfolding, but then gives way to a mix of dark, orchestral strings and shriller violins that portend an approaching threat. Bassnectar takes that tension and seamlessly transitions into an electronic buildup. Swirling mechanical vibrations and dubstep belches of bass drift in and out of the mix, but a quiet interlude reveals the piano and string skeleton that seemingly still underpins the piece. After another anxious slab of head-twisting pressure, the thoughtful finish virtually suggests that despite the Sturm und Drang, everything will play out as intended. Another nice feature of this track is that it’s purely instrumental. While most of Noise vs. Beauty reflects the personalities of the guest vocalists, “F.U.N.” and a small handful of instrumental tracks let the music and production speak for itself. Aside from the opening cut, “Ephemeral” is another intriguing instrumental, offering crystalline mazes of introspective distraction.

Although those voiceless islands provide fine moments of clarity, the guest singers do make some strong contributions. In particular, W. Darling adds the perfect pop polish on the lead single, “You & Me”. The song leads off with a U2 guitar riff that captures the Edge’s trademark chorused echo, but instead of Bono’s strident tone, W. Darling’s breathy sweetness is refreshing. Early on, the tune sounds like a Missing Persons reissue, but it slides into EDM with a tight rhythm and pulsating synth arpeggios. The chorus is an infectious affirmation that makes this song the earworm track of the album. Bassnectar does a good job of matching production to the guest. In sharp contrast to the easy flow of “You & Me”, “Noise” chops and mutates Donnis’ low key, casual rap delivery into a confrontational assertion, “I do what I want to do/ I do what I like.” His untreated voice is a touch defiant, but the pitch-shifted, cough syrup-infused sections darken the mood into sociopathic menace. When the noisy clash of saw blade whine and bass scrape eventually take over, it just feels like an inevitable explosion, like Chekhov’s gun.

Aside from “You & Me”, “Mystery Song” is most likely to catch on with a wider audience. The mix takes a solid synth-wave tune worthy of Siouxsie and the Banshees and gives it a wicked, electronic serrated edge. Samantha Barbera from BEGINNERS effortlessly flips from detached moodiness on the verses to wilder acting out for the chorus. The lockstep beat and sawtooth bass update the sound, but stay in service to the song’s innate new wave pop. Bassnectar throws in some odd ideas that ultimately work out very well, especially the mid-song drop that pushes everything deep underwater before letting it bob back up to the surface. As a result, Noise vs. Beauty is trippy, danceable, and catchy as hell.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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