Tag: new wave

Blaqk Audio – music review

Blaqk Audio – music review

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.

Blaqk Audio
Blaqk Audio at Bluebird Theater in Denver, 2019

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.

Metric – Art of Doubt – music review

Metric – Art of Doubt – music review

Metric has some of the best use of electronic synthesizers that has ever graced music. Emily Haines is a master at the keyboards, and her sounds can only be described as other worldly. Along with her guitarist, James Shaw, she is also a master songwriter. Metric songs are impossibly singable while having a lot to say about human existence and our place in the world, and if that isn’t enough, Emily has a beautiful voice and is a gripping singer and performer. The band has revived new wave sounds into highly original compositions that are entirely danceable but also able to capture a traditional rock aesthetic, especially with the excellent guitar work that James contributes to the band. Metric creates a genuine feeling that the roots of rock and roll are being catapulted to some dark and strange future of powerful electronic pulses and glimpses of visionary insights we don’t usually realize or see.

Emily Haines with Metric
Emily Haines with Metric at Fillmore Auditorium, Denver, 3/20/19

As a live band, they are deeply transcendent. At the Fillmore Auditorium on March 20, the band was as mind expanding as being on board a spaceship, and it was impossible not to move and sing while Emily danced across the stage. Metric songs are a celebration of life. So having someone who loves to dance to her own songs comes across less as entertainment than as profound clubbing and the kind of release that happens when completely lost in waves of sound, as though they are carrying one’s existence to a different place. James is an accomplished guitarist with beautiful classic rock styling that seems to capture rock tradition against Emily’s ethereal, groovy, and haunting keyboards. Her use of synths creates such a powerful electronic layer for the band that it almost feels like having your brain rewired by electronics. 

Emily Haines

That experience is one of the more powerful things that can happen with the best electronic music styles such as industrial, dubstep, and house when they are done intelligently and less commercially, but like industrial music, Metric manage to combine electronics with rock into a natural harmony. They lack the breakages and the sampling that characterizes industrial music in favor of synth driven beauty and light with strong hooks propelling their songs into very unified depictions of life on each album. The result is a synth rock band that succeeds at recreating new wave music in a very original way. Up front with this band at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver was one of the friendliest experiences I’ve had at a show. The off mic comments from Emily were charming, and standing in front of James’ guitar for much of the night was a pleasure of traditional guitar sounds from a positive personality who is very much in tune with his instrument and the whole canvas of what guitar sounds are capable of doing, both traditionally and alongside newer electronic canvases. It’s hard to find a band that is so positive and innovative while at the same time capturing beautifully dark aesthetics about a pessimistic world all within deeply authentic rock tradition.

Emily Haines with Metric

Emily Haines’ skill on synths is a revelation, and the songs are profound as well as catchy. They’re as fun to sing with as Ronan Harris’ imminently singable songs with VNV Nation, because the lyrics actually say meaningful things at the same time as being catapulted by beautiful keyboards, strong messages, and elevated ethereal moments. Metric is doing something that is a bit similar to VNV by using their songs to show an experience of light amidst darkness, but they are far more a part of rock tradition and less tied to goth subculture.

James Shaw
James Shaw

The lighting setup that Metric used on their stage was absolutely beautiful with glowing lights of different colors and shades cast around the stage and performers. The lights captured the intent of the songs perfectly and painted the stage with illumination that seemed to exactly correspond with Emily’s keyboards. The central staging she gives to her keyboards just in front of the drums makes them look like a shrine to synthesizers or part of an electronic church that was built inside of a spaceship. When she heads over to play them attention shifts from her vocals to the keys, and every touch is so magical that the room practically spins as strangely beautiful sounds come out in a transcendent broken harmony that has an odd way of seeming like it continually progresses to still more peaks as one note glides gently but forcefully into the next. 

Emily Haines with Metric

The keyboardists who stand out to me the most besides Emily and classic figures are Nero of Psyclon Nine and Jeremy Dawson of MXMS and Shiny Toy Guns, which admittedly has a lot to do with my love for industrial music, but I enjoy the strange innovation and experimental impulse with edges of beauty that these musicians bring to electronic instrumentation. Emily’s playing is deeply soulful and rhythmic. It’s also spacey and does the best I have ever heard of making synthesizers sound like pure light. Her harmonies are beautiful, and the deeper sounds she produces capture odd and moving vibrations that work their way even deeper into a person’s awareness by being contrasted with her higher notes that seem to float above the horizon of the other instruments. The whole mixture seems to fall somewhere outside of normal perception, as though her keyboards are somehow above everyday awareness, a sort of dark psychedelia without any drugs.

Metric
Metric

Into this powerful mixture comes Art of Doubt, a very beautiful and accomplished album. The only hard part about making the case for it is that the earlier Metric albums are also incredibly accomplished. However, this particular album has a beautiful way of capturing darkness, angst, and absence that makes it a standout, and that does make it seem like a beautiful advance on 2015’s Pagans in Vegas. Die Happy has gotten a lot of attention from the band on tour with its powerful line of, “Is this dystopia?” being emboldened on the drumhead as a backdrop for Emily’s imposing and oddly geometric keyboard setup. It is a profound question to ask right now, and part of the beauty of Metric’s songwriting is that they are deeply existential even with all the danceable beauty of their songs. Asking whether we live in a dystopia in 2019 is a very serious question that can plausibly be answered with a yes for a variety of disturbing social and political reasons having to do with corruption, the concentration of power and resources into the wealthy which is bolstered by increasingly low wage jobs, and the rise of fascist tendencies in western politics. Besides those concerns, war fighting and technology being used to surveil, exploit, and oppress people are major worries. Amidst all of that though, continual exposure to electronic screens and trickery from social media and other places leaves people more encouraged to be superficial and false than ever. Then if all that’s not bad enough, the environment is also nearing massive collapse.

Emily Haines

It is very reasonable to say that dystopia is literally the present then, but Emily’s response is a wonderful embrace of life and not giving a fuck. Metric songs strongly encourage people to go and live, because negativity is built into the world and is best handled by doing the best one is capable of and embracing life regardless of surroundings or circumstance. The act of living life itself in accord with one’s better nature is what breaks through negativity in these songs. Like many of the very best musicians, Emily’s songs find better things within the potential of humanity than to be exploited masses, and following the grace of one’s own spirit and refusing to give up or to do nothing help to overcome dystopia. At the same time, Emily and her cowriter James have an awareness of how limited and negative the world is, and dystopia would seem to be a real thing to this band.

Emily Haines with Metric

Dark Saturday opens the album nicely with a song about living to overcome darkness. “Forever and ever, a night in search of the day,” describes looking for brighter things while living as an outsider and reveling in the fun of nocturnal life. Love You Back is a soulful song with very penetrating rhythms and Emily’s voice singing in a quiet and high register. “I wanna love you back so bad,” portrays desire and closeness amidst hesitation and disappointment. The song is existential, because Emily doesn’t sound trusting after previous disappointments. So the pleasure of connecting is placed around the brokenness of existence and fractured life as she sings, “I’ve been held in place with wire and lace and waltzed around the drain.” So the song sounds both dark and exuberant, a fun waltz of pleasure and disappointment at once brought into harmony.

James Shaw with Metric

Now or Never Now is about living in darkness as well. The beautifully sung refrain of, “It’s now or never,” accompanied by soft sounding keys emphasizes the need to take life and not wait, ignoring how broken everything might be to simply live the way people are meant to. “The last time you let yourself feel this way, it was a long long time ago,” suggests both loss and fright. Art of Doubt as the title track then captures the album and Emily’s beliefs very well. It’s a kind of existential skepticism over the certainty of life and other people through which she recognizes the need to create and live nonetheless as the only way to fix anything. Whatever happens around us, we exist, and we should control our own lives and do things with them. By doing so, we realize that what happens around us doesn’t even matter very much, because within every person, there is much more for people who are brave or inspired enough to embrace creation and life.

Emily Haines with Metric

The entire album is strongly split between both existential ideas and transcendent ones. Underline the Black has the memorable line of, “They’re still waiting for their lives to start.” It’s a line that seems meant to get a reaction from the audience, making a difference to all of us through conveying inspiration and a deep understanding of existence. Many people do effectively devote their lives to petty things and thus never really live. For a highly existential band like Metric, dying while doing something great and trying to succeed is not such a bad thing while not being yourself is a horror. Life is about living and doing, and that ultimate life affirmation drives much of the album. The brand of existentialism that it has a lot in common with is Jean-Paul Sartre, with his claim that humanity is ultimately free, that we are obligated to control our fates and recognize that existence is inherently a horror no matter where one is. The only way to overcome that horror is to live and to do things, taking ownership of one’s narrative.

Emily Haines with Metric

Dressed to Suppress takes the superficiality of looking good to overcome negativity and turns it into making yourself who you want to be. Sorrow exists and is part of life, but making oneself into something above it can go from appearance to reality if we go out and live and create ourselves into who we choose to be, as though existence itself is an X waiting to be filled in by what we choose to do for ourselves, by what thrills, moves, and engages us to act. It has some of Emily’s best and most interesting singing with fast emphasis on her lines. Risk is another existential song about the risk of connecting with someone. Every line of the song is memorable and beautifully sung, and it’s one of the most fun songs to sing along to. “Can I send this kiss back to you now, ‘cause the risk belongs with you somehow? Can I return this kiss that you gave? Already know it’s borrowed anyway. Was the risk I sent to you received?,” Emily sings skeptically. She later tells us, “There’s another way to leave the garden of eden,” which seems to be a reference both to falling and also to innocence.

Emily Haines with Metric

Seven Rules is about finding safety with someone else and is slow and beautiful, making a transition into quiet melody after the album has done an excellent job of preparing us with so many sweeping keyboard passages. After the skepticism of relationships on the previous song, this one celebrates being safe with someone, and it is lovely for its dryness and lack of excessive emotional drama. It lets the song remain existential and authentic, an examination of connection rather than a superficial ballad. Holding Out by contrast is about waiting when we should be doing things. Waiting for tomorrow or better situations effectively wastes the limited lives we have. So the time to live is always now. Anticipate takes Emily’s ability to make her keyboards sound like a UFO and amplifies it to absolutely strange sounds that are beautiful in a haunting way with a remarkably dark echo under her heavier choice of keys. No Lights on the Horizon is an especially deep song with its sensitive line of, “If it wasn’t for your kindness lately, I’d never get out of bed.” Then Emily makes what seems to be a statement about the human condition with, “It’s true. I’m flawed. I’ve made every mistake.” That is part of living and having awareness rather than regret, and the song is a very dark close for the album that clearly emphasizes the pervasive darkness and romantic nihilism that has been carried over from goth rock.

Metric

The entire album is a powerful statement and musical journey, and it is even more interesting against Pagans in Vegas with the two albums showing two complementary sides of synth rock. The synthesizers in Emily’s hands have a moving capability of conveying deep, soulful, and ethereal sounds with gliding and subtle shifts between notes that allow for every other instrument to achieve new forms of expression. Pink Floyd is a nice touching point for me in seeing how they fit against rock history for creating such an innovative sense of going on a journey through music and discovering a new palette of possibilities. The production on the album is especially beautiful and well balanced with nuances of sound laid throughout such that the smallest of vibrations is clearly audible. It’s a relief compared to the endless stream of overly compressed albums that are made to play on junky 21st century earbuds with no dynamic range. The album cover also fits the strongly existentialist nature of Art of Doubt. The empty circle looks like the Zen use of the enso symbol. In Zen it is used to show emptiness, but most especially the emptiness of the self, and Emily is laying bare the human soul as an open place waiting to be given meaning and to make its own existence.

Emily Haines with Metric

The songs were especially beautiful live, and the album seems like a Zen celebration of nothingness begetting life. This was even more profound with seeing Metric play these songs against older ones like the great Sick Muse from Fantasies. “Everybody just wanna fall in love; everybody just wanna play the lead,” captures Emily, the band, and the reverie of the audience all very well, with conflict and beauty clashing to become a new transcendental melody. After one realizes how much nonsense everything around us is, living and enjoying absurdity by going out and doing things is a fun response to embrace. Gimme Sympathy and Gold Guns Girls also made the point of their music very well at the concert. Songs from the masterpiece, Synthetica, also figured prominently in the set, with a very moving performance of Breathing Underwater standing out as showing that the band’s celebration of life comes with a strong acceptance of struggle. It is no doubt one of the best bands in the world to see perform and one of the most beautiful, authentic, and inspiring shows.

Emily Haines with Metric

They are overall the best and most original synthesizer based rock band one can see. The skill Emily Haines brings to her synths reminds me of true instrumental greats such as Charlie Parker with his saxophone. James Shaw adds wonderful classical styling through the intricate riffs from his guitar, and this lets the band coexist as an innovative project with moving electronic sounds and a landscape that deeply draws on and advances ideas from classic rock. It’s telling that they toured with the no less than the Rolling Stones and worked with Lou Reed in the past while also recreating new wave sounds, using obvious goth rock influences on Art of Doubt, and turning electronic music on its head by having more sophisticated synth playing than anyone else accompanied by strong and real rock and roll. Metric is a great band to reckon with, and if attention to rock is still sincere in the 21st century, it’s one of the biggest and most perfect adjustments of rock aesthetics since Pink Floyd showed that rock could be a darkly psychedelic journey into weirder places than most people can ever anticipate.

Emily Haines with Metric

They are also a very cohesive unit of musicians. While Emily Haines gets most of the fame, James is important as a songwriter and a moving guitarist to be in front of live, while the drummer and bassist are long time members with excellent skillful playing, evoking beautiful rhythms that catapult much of the songs. The rhythm has an especially important role with Emily’s keys and James’ guitar both alternating as the lead, and they play beautifully in synch in a way that bands with changing lineups are challenged to deliver. People who are this expert at their craft add a fun layer to a show beyond the excellence of the songs, and the last time I was so moved by the pure beauty of musicians playing so well together was at a concert for The Cure some years ago. That genuine excitement is a pleasure to see when a band plays, and in Metric’s hands, electronic music clearly does its best when it stays with rock as so many industrial bands have also indicated. Synth rock is clearly offering a bold statement to reckon with through Metric, a slightly different direction where much more classic style and songwriting is intricately updated to mesh against strangely beautiful electronic sounds that add more depth than keyboard can normally accomplish in human hands.

Emily Haines with Metric