Wednesday, February 24, 2016

album review: 'paradise' by pop. 1280

I guarantee the majority of you did not see the review when I covered this band the first time.

And frankly, I'm amazed that in the summer of 2013 and after a random browse through Pitchfork that I decided to cover them, more out of bored curiosity than anything else. And while I haven't really revisited much of that record, I do distinctly remember Pop. 1280 as a weird, twisted, dark little band, driving some surprisingly solid melodies through the noise to create a hollow, rattling somewhat industrial flavour, with lyrics that seemed to alternate between punk railing against the machine and the craven horrors that humanity engaged in to survive. And while I wasn't always wild about frontman Chris Bug's delivery or the haphazard mixing, I did think their sophomore release Imps Of Perversion was a step in the right direction to emphasize the band's strengths that got overshadowed in the rough noisy murk of their debut.

And thus when I heard that their third album had opted for an even bigger, even more electronic-enhanced sound, further polishing and building off of the foundation of their last release, I was definitely interested. So, better late than never, I dug into their third album Paradise - what did I get?

You know, I feel I should like this album a lot more than I do, because in theory it does exactly what it should: take the murky, howling post-punk of Pop. 1280, fuse it with the wiry and razor sharp electronic synths that only contribute more to that 'cyberpunk' feel for which they've always tried, and then crank it up to eleven in terms of sheer raw bombast. There's a greater focus on melody while still maintaining the atmosphere, the delivery is as visceral and powerful as ever... and yet I don't love this record. I think it's probably the best thing the band has done, but I still feel like something is holding Pop. 1280 from really smashing through for me, and this'll be my change to try and explain why.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, and here the majority of what I have to say is praise. While of course you get the jagged spikes of noise and seething guitar feedback that alternatively carries a fragmented melody or on tracks like 'USS ISS' or 'Kingdom Come' just sprays over everything, this is probably the most melodic and groove-driven record to date, mostly courtesy of a choice to ground the majority of these tracks in wiry, pulsating low synths that hammer an aggressive tempo and almost always nail the great balance between coldly synthetic and organic grime - even on the moments where they just seethe like on the opener 'Pyramids on Mars', that melody does return for greater interplay on a faded piano that balances between eerie and melancholy incredibly well. And the percussion is just top quality, either through the explosive drumwork that drives tracks like the killer gothic groove on 'Phantom Freighter' or the two-step shift on 'In Silico' or the more sparse, skeletal moments like the exercise in atmosphere that is the title track with its out-of-key guitars and rickety beat, to 'Rain Song', where the cryptic paranoia and melodic fragments are punctuated by what sounds like instruments shattering against a chilling skitter. Hell, if I were to criticize the production, I'd say that some pieces feel a little too softened or muted to really match the grime of the rest of the album, like the decent fuzzed out groove on 'Chromidia' or that odd burble that just softens the groove on 'Kingdom Come for no discernible reason'. But then again, this is an album that pushes the underlying production dichotomy of Pop. 1280 to the absolute limit: they're a band that's always gone for a punk aesthetic in production that's seedy and grimy, and yet to capture the scale of their ambition and scope, they're reaching the limit of what they can do without cranking up the heaviness and going straight metal, piling on the reverb to swamp things out, or opting for a more theatrical presentation and potentially compromising that atmosphere.

And I say all of this because nowhere is that dichotomy shown more than our frontman Charles Bug. I've said in the past that he reminds me of a low-rent Nick Cave, but I'd argue it's a little more complex than that, mostly because Nick Cave did leave behind his grimy Birthday Party roots for something more bombastic and theatrical. Charles Bug instead is pivoting towards a sort of gothic dance-punk with his more brash, full-throated howls - and to his credit, is showing a lot more range than I'd expect, finally coming into his own as that driving presence. It's why tracks like 'Pyramids On Mars' or 'Phantom Freighter' or especially 'Rain Song' have so much impact when they lean into his vocals, which leads to probably my biggest production issue: when you have such a force of personality, it's not the best idea to have him layered to the point of incomprehensibility like on 'USS ISS' or 'Kingdom Come'. Now this has always been an issue with Pop. 1280 since their inception, and while I think they're on the right path, it's probably the first big factor that keeps me from really getting onboard.

And the other factor is the lyrics and themes. Now again, I like a lot of what they're doing here: Pop. 1280 leaning into the bigger scope of dystopian cyberpunk is the natural outgrowth to the expanded sound, and they've always had a much more visceral slice of the mood than most other groups. They can tap into the seedy underbelly that underscores those oppressed and dehumanized, getting into the underlying paranoia and ruined infrastructure for those at the very bottom, and while I'm not always into such relentlessly nihilistic attitudes, the writing is often good enough to pull me in thanks to the detail. 'Pyramids On Mars' is a great example, as the titular line is often used as an extended metaphor for our protagonist shouldn't fool himself into thinking things will improve, only emphasizing the alien nature of the situation all the further. And I like how tracks like 'Phantom Freighter' and 'Kingdom Come' lean into the coming doom as the system starts to come apart at the seams, with the echoing intercom on the former track seeming to glitch as it utters 'Everything... is wrong'. And I like while how it rails against the system that dehumanizes like on 'Chromidia' or 'USS ISS', it shows that the alternative, the seedy decay of 'Rain Song' or the genuinely unsettling 'The Last Undertaker', might not be preferable or better. And it underlines the main point of Paradise: it might be warped and perverted and not your idea of paradise, but if humanity is creating it, you're probably never going to find your utopian dream. Now that's a potent theme... but the issue I have with the writing - and I'll admit it's a personal foible - is that it's a conclusion driven more by subtext than actual text, which means that parts of this album can feel a bit underwritten. It's minor - the more I read through the text the more bits of cleverness do leap out - but with a few songs like 'In Silico' running long and not quite evolving lyrically the same way they do musically, I feel this record has the mood and atmosphere but not quite the lyrical gutpunch to tie it all together.

That said, I do like and admire this record. I don't quite think Paradise by Pop. 1280 is quite the career-defining powerhouse that it could have been, but they're definitely getting closer with each release, and that continued promise is exciting to see develop. So for me, it's a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're into the noisy side of goth rock that isn't afraid to fuse in elements of dance punk. And if you're not into albums that'll become goth club staples in the next few months, check it regardless - we're getting a lot of dystopian records, and I'd take this over Megadeth any damn day of the week.

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