Tuesday, August 6, 2013

album review: 'imps of perversion' by pop. 1280

You're all forgiven for not knowing who this band is.

Hell, it wasn't that long ago when I had no idea who this group was. If you're looking for acts flying completely under the radar, Pop. 1280 might just be one of the quintessential examples. Signed to Sacred Bones (an indie label out of, where else, Brooklyn), a criminally underwritten Wikipedia page, and with a reputation for abrasive, grimy gothic noise rock, Pop. 1280 certainly aren't attracting the type of critical buzz that I'd normally pick up upon. The only reason I think The AV Club bothered to review the album is because it's the beginning of August and there's barely anything else coming out until John Mayer and Chris Brown decide to simultaneously ruin the summer in one fell swoop.

So why am I bothering to review Pop. 1280's newest album Imps Of Perversion instead of continuing with my retrospectives of other acts that already came out this year? Two reasons: I still need a bit more time to go through Deerhunter's discography for when I talk about Monomania; and more importantly, the fact that Pop. 1280 describes itself as a 'cyberpunk' act.

This immediately caught my attention, because the whole 'cyberpunk' brand used to be a lot more prevalent in the 80s and 90s, with a unique aesthetic drawn from the goth, punk, and raver scenes. Heavily linked to dystopian fiction, cyberpunk tended to have underlying themes of youth fighting against corrupt institutions of the past, the balance between humanity and technology, corporate capitalism running rampant, the abuse of biotechnology, and a lot of interesting ideas that tended to get buried beneath the bondage leather and the excuse to have fetish models pop up in B-list action movies. The sad fact that outside of some critically acclaimed anime, some solid video games, a few decent table-top RPGs, a couple superb novels (often by William Gibson), and Blade Runner, there's a whole ton of crap in the cyberpunk genre that can't even hope to be intellectually engaging or interesting besides cheap masturbatory thrills. 

And nowhere is this more apparent than in music. Sure, Bowie managed to make a decent pseudo-cyberpunk album in the mid-90s with Outside, and Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero did attempt a more politically charged venture into cyberpunk trends, but most music attempting to tap into 'cyberpunk' culture failed pretty disastrously. The most egregious example was Billy Idol's catastrophic album Cyberpunk, which thoroughly destroyed whatever was left of his career. Having relistened to that album recently - and believe me, it hasn't aged well in the slightest - I think I've managed to pin down why it failed: it only grasped the surface gloss of what cyberpunk was, instead of digging into the meatier ideas beneath it.

And really, when I took a look at Pop. 1280's first album The Horror, I was optimistic. After all, there's plenty of untapped potential in cyberpunk, and if we're looking for a modern generation where cyberpunk might hold some relevance to youth, it's right now. Think about all of the themes I mentioned before and compare them to current trends right now. Double-digit unemployment, corrupt corporate overreach, disaffected youth lacking direction and seeking release however they can, these are real things for my generation, and Pop. 1280 could have made a challenging and essential album to speak to these real problems...

And they didn't do that. Their 2012 album The Horror instead opted to imitate the cheap thrills of the cyberpunk aesthetic and blend them with lyrics cribbed from a bad nu-metal songbook. I will give credit to bassist John Skultrane and Zac Ziemann's drumming for managing to build a firm foundation for the better songs, but there's very little built on top of that foundation that's worth talking about. The guitarwork by Ivan Lip is biting and distorted and occasionally builds up with monstrous energy, but with a lack of a driving tune and little chord variation, I couldn't help but lose interest in the material very quickly. Chris Bug's vocals might strive to imitate early Nick Cave, but lacking the dynamics or the air of menace, he comes across like a post-grunge singer attempting to sound dangerous or scary, neither of which I bought. And not only was the technical songwriting rudimentary at best, the lyrics forsook the more interesting ideas in cyberpunk and opted for cheap, schlocky attempts at scares with little subtlety or pacing. In comparison to anything Nick Cave has done (or The Flaming Lips' similarly titled album The Terror from earlier this year), Pop. 1280 couldn't help but look out of their depth, particularly with the lifeless and flat production work that did nobody any favours.

But that being said, I'm willing to give Pop. 1280 a second chance - debut albums are always tough to get right. So how does their follow-up Imps Of Perversion turn out?

Youtube review after the jump

Well, it's not bad. It's not fantastic either, but there are several steps taken here that are in the right direction that give Imps Of Perversion a passing grade. I'll admit that some of this might potentially come from lowered expectations after listening through The Horror, but I don't want to disparage the genuine improvements that Pop. 1280 made.

So let's get the real issues out of the way. The production is haphazard at best - on some tracks it's passable, but on others, it either flattens out the sound or puts emphasis on all the wrong places. I'm still not a fan of how they bury Chris Bug's vocals in the mix, and the overuse of vocal effects on his voice don't help matters (although in some cases, they do work reasonably well for creating atmosphere, the best case being on 'Machine Trauma'). And on the topic of Bug's delivery, while I will give him credit for adding a bit more energy and sleaze into his vocals, it's still very much apparent that he is at best a low-rent Nick Cave, devoid of the hoarse rasp or melodic inflection that made Cave such an iconic and potent vocalist. In fact, outside of the vocals, I'm reminded a bit of lead singer Marko Saaresto of the alternative metal act Poets Of The Fall (who you should all check out, because they're amazing) when he chooses to drop into a harsher vocal inflection, like he did on the band's third album Revolution Roulette. Yes, the grime is there, but there's a distinctive lack of raw charisma that really undercuts his vocals for me.

And while I will say the lyrics are marginally better (Bug pulls back from the blood-drenched debut for material a little subtler, which is only a step in the right direction), Pop. 1280 are still not very good technical songwriters. It's less clumsy than The Horror, but not by much, and while I think the dog-motif they use is interesting (basic symbol of savagery), it's starting to become overused. The breaking point for me with that was 'Nailhouse', a seven minute seething monstrosity of a song that should have been capped at the four minute mark, mostly because the band runs out of interesting lyrical ideas and opts to just repeat segments over and over again. If they were trying to create their version of Nick Cave's 'The Mercy Seat', they definitely didn't succeed.

That being said, the lyrics did improve here, and while the focus on cyberpunk subjects was handled a little clumsily, it at least appeared. Both 'Human Probe' and 'Human Probe II' tackle the paranoia of government and corporate overreach ('Population Control' tries, but doesn't quite stick the landing), and the bonus track 'Machine Trauma' is a desperate shout against corporate surveillance and society's choice to ignore the abuses under their noses. On the other hand, 'Coma Baby' goes for shock in a cheap manner (implying the guy wants to screw the girl in a coma, Kill Bill style), but the framing correctly paints him as a pervert desperately trying to justify the fact that just because she's not moving doesn't mean she's dead. But the place where Pop. 1280 gets the most right is 'Riding Shotgun', where Bug tries to hide from his crimes by saying he wasn't the one in charge. This is the song that gets the closest to NIck Cave-esque darkness, and it gets there not through describing what he does, but by leaving Bug's stoned, hollow delivery to speak for it and letting us use our imagination - and thus in our minds, we create the far more horrifying vision.

But I really want to focus on what Pop. 1280 did improve in a big way: instrumentation. On the best tracks of the album, the foundation of Skultrane's bass and Ziemann's drumming is used to ground the atmosphere, the bass alternating between sounding hollow and murky to imposing and threatening. The introduction of more electronic elements and keyboards are handled much more deftly on this album, as subtle touches to enhance that cyberpunk element, which letting the guitar produce a churning background that roils and crashes when it's finally brought to the front of the mix. The choice to allow more organic guitar work is definitely a good step, because it allows real melodies to surface through the noise (which they don't often do with the high distortion, which can be frustrating). Now all of these elements were present on the previous album, what is improved here is the interplay between Skultrane and Lip, which lead to well-executed changes in tempo and energy which add a fair amount of brooding flavour to the album. This is best shown on the downbeat 'Riding Shotgun' (my favourite track on the album), as Ivan Lip's guitar develops a country-esque twang and lets Skultrane's bass thrum in the background, not so much interplay but perfect balance.

To summarize things, if Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are the archdevils in charge of the courts of darkness, Pop. 1280 are the cackling imps on the edges of the court, grimy and wretched (and I mean that as a compliment). The album is punishingly bleak, and while it still isn't quite scary or all that imposing, it does occasionally manage to be unsettling. There are still some issues that need to be addressed - Chris Bug's voice still doesn't have a lot of melodic range, the songs could easily be shorter and achieve better results, the technical songwriting could definitely be improved and the lack of more focused cyberpunk material continues to disappoint - but this is a step in the right direction, and I found myself surprised how much I ended up enjoying Imps Of Perversion in the end. 

If you're a fan of dark gothic punk or noise rock, you could definitely do worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment