Blaqk Audio is a standout EBM and industrial band with deep electronic roots that explore 1980’s sounds better than just about any other project in the genre. That is something of a surprise, because it’s a spinoff and side project from the notable hard rock band AFI, which veers between metal, punk, and new wave with engaging and catchy rock aggressiveness. AFI is a very successful band with a large following that gives Davey Havok and Jade Puget the luxury of being able to do what they want with side projects. Blaqk Audio is their most important work to my ears, with accomplished songwriting and dense but catchy electronic experiments that are energetic and irresistible.
Sometimes I think that industrial needs to get some inspiration from the success and frenetic energy of EDM, dubstep, DnB and varying styles of electronica outside its dark gothic rock roots. Blaqk Audio is fully up to the task and is as industrial as anything can get without ever being limited to that. This makes for a vastly fun performance band, even with only two people. The high energy and enthusiasm is irresistible and infects the audience into an organic whole that seems to have landed on an alien spaceship from the early 1980s. Davey Havok adds to that by being one of the most charismatic frontmen in music. He has so much charisma as a performer that you really have to see it to believe it, and anyone who hasn’t already seen this band live is in for a shock at how accomplished and friendly a performance artist he is.
The new album itself, Only Things We Love, is a highpoint for the band. It is darker, more bass driven with velvety production, and a perfect expression of 80’s dark club sounds brought into the present. Part of the overall excitement with this project is that they have veered between experimenting with traditional EBM sounds from industrial music and blending those with 80’s style new wave sounds. Industrial is greatly indebted to the 80’s, but it has the pitfall of becoming such a subgenera that it can be repetitive and dense without connecting enough to larger musical trends. Blaqk Audio directly disrupts that both with such a successful incorporation of the best 80’s sounds and also with the mainstream appeal that Davey and Jade’s other project, AFI, carries.
Thanks to the success of their other project, Davey and Jade seem able to do anything they want with Blaqk Audio, and it lets them indulge in some of the most artistically excellent areas of industrial music. The sounds are dark, but the themes are psychological, focusing often on desire (as did much 80’s new wave), and everything is positive and friendly dance floor music. There isn’t the apocalyptic sensibility that some industrial bands have been expressing. I confess sympathy for bands with post apocalyptic ideas, because the environmental status of the planet seems to be going there, but clubbing is supposed to be fun and positive, and Blaqk Audio capture that disruptive 80’s bleak hopefulness very well.
The most fascinating thing about the band is that they seem like a time machine that goes back to the 80’s, but they are also very forward looking and manage to link that with very modern and progressive sounds that look to the future of electronic music. It’s a reasonable perspective on an important artistic movement that in many respects was born in the 80’s but has a great deal more still to say. Given the amazing growth that electronic music scenes besides industrial and dark wave have seen, I tend to think this is a correct assessment of the state of the most innovative music in 2019. Growth in areas such as dubstep, electro house, DnB, EDM, and other exciting electronic club genres has left experimentation with electronic sounds a furiously exciting area to explore. The importance of rock as both a place of musical tradition and subversion melds with that experimentation through industrial sounds, but Blaqk Audio distills the most important essence of all those trends especially well. Davey and Jade’s project in some ways reminds me of the way that Japanese art often is able to refine larger traditions to essential elements and refine them down to a very beautiful simplicity. Nothing is excessive, but everything is clear, organized, and beautiful.
Their earlier albums are all standouts, though with a bit less of a dirty sound, perhaps as they tried to reinvent 80’s sounds they enjoyed with clarity. CexCells, with its clever play on words in suggesting desire shaped into electronics, was a landmark surprise album to come as a side project from AFI. It also fit Davey and Jade as musicians who have an obvious love for the 80’s. The surprise though was the skill of creating an album around electronic beats and samples when they were already so prominent in rock. It stands out as very experimental and a bold statement of simplicity. Bright Black Heaven stirred things up with a darker vision and a nod to apocalyptic tendencies in EBM, but with Davey and Jade’s characteristically positive sentiments as a solution to the pessimism. They seem to find love and togetherness to be perfectly good solutions to negativity and bad events, and the catchiness of the songs makes it sometimes feel like an electronic duo version of The Beatles, guys who really get rock and roll and bring it into a charismatic presentation of velvety sounds with perfect unforgettable beats. Material perhaps was a most complete vision with a bit more ground being covered and more of a synthesis of musical styles, and it does a good job of anticipating what Only Things We Love accomplishes.
One 1980’s new wave touchpoint that I can’t ignore in assessing their album is the excellent Flowers of Romance by Public Image Limited. PiL is too often overlooked in discussions of punk and new wave as precursors to EBM, because they are somewhat too radical to digest compared to some of the more catchy bands. John Lydon’s project after the Sex Pistols took his punk sensibilities and morphed them into the post punk experimentation that would come after with catchier but complex and less angry songs that acknowledged superficiality in culture. With grinding percussion driven songs that seem to head in all directions through abstract loops and bits of keyboard, it showed a possibility of rock experimentation breaking the confines of its own aesthetic without dropping the basic elements. In some ways it captures the very idea of post punk. Where punk managed to simplify rock expression to its raw essentials, like an emotive punch from the most basic elements, post punk took that distilled vision and turned it into experimentation with breaking the most basic rules of rock. At the same time, post punk maintains rock structure and allows songs to be catchy enough to bring it all together. That seems to be the kind of tapestry on Only Things We Love, an album that takes 80’s experimentation as its starting point but builds dark jagged electronic layers above it that is haunting throughout and is driven by velvety percussion that manages to tie together the oddest of sounds.
The opening track of Infinite Skin is a delightful mix of danger and fun. The lyrics hint at an endless list of people to kill, but it is really a song about endless connection and the dichotomy of love and death. “I stopped a little short, a little short of something right,” suggests not pursuing something when risk can pay off. “Killing” is transformed into connecting or changing and becomes a metaphor for living by making an impact. The Viles is about yearning and staying together. “I will keep you here with me,” is sung against lyrics about risk and hiding. The world is dangerous in these songs, but that is half the fun, because it is a context to go out and find connection under dark shadows, danger, and neon lights. Davey and Jade are smart enough to see dark times, but they love art and clubbing for the good that it brings to that kind of situation.
Unstained sounds beautifully situated in the middle of the 80’s with gliding segues sung between lines and airy beats against bright keyboards with the continual sense of dark but sensual danger and risk that the whole album carries. “You’re making me so short of breath,” carries passion against exhaustion and frenetic life. Muscle and Matter is a profound coming of age song about how one changes in ways that don’t make sense. The music carries a sense of wonder as Davey sings about it being hard to believe that we all lived as much smaller creatures earlier in life. “It’s hard to believe in muscle and matter. It’s hard to believe that I was a boy.” Such brief lyrics capture something so profound as impressionistic glimpses tell about growing up through the rest of the song. “Conspiring with cats,” sounds dark and gothic, but it also sounds like a child playing with pets. It’s a beautiful play on different meanings. The keyboard sounds innocent, and it is a bit astounding that so much can be conveyed in only a few minutes of music. Caroline in the Clip is about a girl, and comes across as a beautiful collage of memory, fantasy, and connection. It’s about someone, but with truly great lyricism, it could also be anyone, which in turn makes it a perfect club song. Maker is about separation and sad disconnection, but it is left open ended. “I can’t love you anymore,” again has two senses. Either he he can’t love her any longer, or else he has done as much as he can and needs to be appreciated, or it’s a bit of both. Summer’s Out of Sight is about the end of something as well, fatalism against percussion and bass that make us want to find meaning.
OK, Alex is completely addictive as it describes an irresistible but exasperating person. “Blood, sweat, no tears,” sets up an exhausting adventure with someone who might be crazy but could be worth it. Enemies Forever sounds like love turning into conflict that can’t be quit. Dark Arcades is positively haunting about what has been lost from the past. It conjures up a time when arcade games were common as a metaphor for other things that have vanished from life. Music dies. Games get unplugged. Still, we play. Dark Times at the Berlin Wall recalls the 80s even more with something that literally doesn’t exist afterwards. A symbol of division, the fall of the wall is seen as an opening of freedom, but the 21st century has sadly seen the optimism that went with that era replaced by endless wars and technological oppression. The mechanistic sounds bring images of machinery. “You’ve been speaking with tired gods. I’ve been conferring with cats,” has to be one of my favorite lyrical turns. Davey sings about losing his way but finding it by looking elsewhere than the ordinary. Matrimony and Dust closes the album with a song about love and loss, a theme that beautifully summarizes the album, which really is about the value of love and the everyday profundity of it. A girl rips her jeans, and that is as ordinary as it gets, but its a segue to more. The album is romantic about everyday things and celebrates a love of life against darkness and loss. It is as perfect as EBM will ever get.
Davey on stage is a delight. He dances and communicates with the audience exceptionally well and just has a natural ability at doing exactly that. He is a master performer and vocalist with the ability to perfectly match what’s happening in his songs while still talking to the audience in between, reaching out to play around with people, and dancing in between lines. Besides fun club dancing, he places very good inflected emphasis on parts of his songs that makes them more dramatic live. It reminds me a bit of how Alissa White Gluz is able to create very powerful dramatic emphasis on parts of the songs that Michael Amott writes for Arch Enemy. That band has a fiery place in protest metal that gives it such an attack that ties it forever to a metal subculture that understands Swedish death metal, but for Blaqk Audio, the goal is to be as inclusive as possible while capturing important underground dance trends with bits of new wave. The show early in 2019 at Bluebird Theatre saw the band focusing on their new album while also drawing quite a bit on their previous work. It was a high energy show that showcased the best sounds and seemed much more like an art night of electronic music than something insisting to be an underground scene.
I also got to see them DJ, and it was one of the best DJ experiences ever. They played predominantly 80’s songs with special emphasis on The Cure and Depeche Mode, and the energy level in the club was high with one of the friendliest audiences I’ve been in. Davey sang some of the songs without a microphone, just to entertain everyone, and danced, and they made for a great and very open club night at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. Jade’s mixing with just a laptop and no serious DJ controller was delightful, and the way they crossed between new wave, goth rock, industrial sounds, and electronica was skillful at bringing the past into the present by mining some of the best 80’s sounds and showcasing how they built elements that are used in some of the most progressive new music. AFI also sits somewhat in the background of this, because they have moved increasingly towards new wave sounds with the last couple of albums. While that main project of Davey and Jade is an impressive contemporary rock achievement, Blaqk Audio sounds like perfection brought to some very important sounds that in other hands often provide less full of a vision and less of an inclusive world of sound. These albums do a lot to show how electronic music is likely to evolve in coming years, a true combination of dark things with beautiful things and a very open but always atmospheric palette.