Thursday, January 26, 2017

album review: 'new world alphabet' by ubiquitous synergy seeker (USS)

So let's talk about the Canadian alternative scene a little bit. 

Now for those Americans in the audience, alternative and indie rock never really went away in Canada, not quite thriving in the same way as the pop music that still monopolizes mainstream radio, but there's a real chance you'll actually hear alternative rock if you turn on the radio, mostly because the Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission requires the radio play a certain amount of Canadian content. So not only does this mean a large quantity of the overblown streaming trends haven't quite crossed over in the same way, but in order to fill time radio producers have had little choice but to pull from Canadian acts that have the flexibility to get a little weirder and rougher.

So into that scene comes Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker, otherwise known as USS, an alternative dance duo that might as well have been imported straight from the late 90s in their fusion of drum n' bass with crunchy pop rock. And it's a little tough to directly define the genre and style of this group - think of a frenetic blend of Cobra Starship, Fatboy Slim, a little Primal Scream, and all with the sense that you really shouldn't take them too seriously. And hey, that was fine with 2009's pretty damn fun Questimation, which followed the even better EP Welding The C:/... but despite their 2014 EP Advanced Basics being their most successful EP to date, their splatter-painting approach to genres seemed to be having diminishing returns across the board, from less articulate lyrics, flatter production, less interesting delivery, and slower tempos. But hey, maybe that was just EP experimentation, and though the lead-off single to their newest record seemed to be going in even twangier, more lethargic territory, maybe they could capture some that frenetic momentum on the rest of New World Alphabet, right?

Well, here's the thing: if you were expecting New World Alphabet to bring back the speed and intensity of their early work, you're going to leave disappointed, because it definitely doesn't do that. But in a sense I wasn't really expecting it - the duo had their most success when they played to a slower, more conventionally accessible sound and style, and the desire to keep repeating that success is very plain across this record. And yet while I'm not surprised, I can't help but be disappointed that eight years from Questimation Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker can't bring back that same spark on this album. For sure it's not bad - the core of their sound and loose style is still mostly here - but the luster has definitely faded, and that's the real disappointment.

So what went wrong here - because again, if you take a look on the surface, USS are still hitting the same marks. A decidedly 90s approach to big stomping hooks, scratching, and multi-tracked vocals layered to be borderline reminiscent of Smash Mouth, all against the big buzzy synth layers and blaring tones that wouldn't be out of place in the club boom. And hey, for as flimsy as this sort of sound can feel, there are reasons why it has worked in the past: bright, prominent melodies, thicker beats but never at the point where they compromised the melody, and providing the tempos were fast enough, some pretty fun danceable music. And sure, for the most part the hooks are still there and the percussion still picks up some groove, but with slower tempos, you can't help but feel these tracks don't have the same spark of life, the textures not as vibrant or explosive. Part of it feels like concessions made to modern pop, from how much the melodic tones on 'Work Shoes' sink into reverb - not helped by swapping out electric guitar for a limp acoustic line, a consistent issue that crops up later on 'California Medication' - to the tropical touches on 'Who's With Me' to the stuttering trap percussion that shows up on 'Broken Smile' to play off the bells. And that's before you get the overlayered backing vocals against the kazoo-like main tone, low wiry synth and strings on 'Vulcan' - I mean, does anyone seriously go to USS for this sort of material? And I really think the acoustic guitar is at the root of the problem here - sure, it can anchor the sort of breezy, lightweight material that Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker are making on this record, but when everything is as flattened and compressed as it is, it never gives these songs the same sense of warmth. I got more vibrancy on songs like 'Who's With Me' courtesy of the horn-like buzzy synth melody, or the scuzzy guitar line lurking within the hook of 'Domino', or the frenetic jitter of 'Alien', or the melodic tone that seems half jacked from Fitz & The Tantrums on 'Us', even if that spongy kissing sound that comes in halfway through does neuter the vibe a bit.

Now some of are you inevitably saying that this isn't fair: this is clearly the sound that USS are pursuing, why are you so adamant it was a poor choice? Well, I'd like to think Questimation was answer enough, but it's more because USS aren't particularly convincing playing this sort of midtempo brand of modern pop, partially because they're in a playground where twenty one pilots are markedly doing a similar sort of genre salad better, and partially because with every step away from a more energetic sound, Ash Buchholz's vocals get less and less interesting. Not only does he sound tuned out half the time, but the style of thicker multi-tracking and his rougher bellowed delivery is a much more natural fit against more aggressive tempos and textures, especially considering the lack of any deeper organic dynamics... which would be fine if there was enough momentum or firepower in anything besides the beats or percussion to back it up! Credit must be given to at least keeping the percussion grooves going, but when you can't effectively back them up, it leads to wonky mix balance. Previous USS albums were always front and top heavy, but there was often enough going on to distract you, whereas here... not so much.

But okay, if they want to slow things down and relax, maybe Buchholz's delivery would work? Well, that would naturally place more of a focus on the lyrics... which the last thing that you want on this album. Again, it's not so much that they're bad as they are painfully thin and lacking greater detail - see 'Work Shoes' - or the sort of try-too-hard flows that end up feeling awkward, like 'there's a fly in my soupy-soup' or 'clear as the crystical' on 'Domino'. None of it adds up to much of a coherent theme beyond general independence to enjoy oneself and have fun, although things do get weird on the back half where it seems like the duo plays with alien disconnection on 'Alien' only to refute it and reassert feelings on 'Vulcan', or the regret of 'Us' where they want to reunite a relationship and I'm sorry, is this the sort of material that anyone wants to hear from Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker? For as reckless and messy as 'Broken Smile' is, it at least sounds like something that USS would write!

But as a whole... honestly, I'm a bit at a loss how to even evaluate this project, partially because at a length of around twenty-six minutes it's too ephemeral to raise more of an impact with me! There's enough going on in the instrumentation and percussion grooves and some admittedly decent hooks that I can appreciate some of what USS used to be, but for as much as they're apparently wild on stage, it's not translating on record, which leads to a stiffer, thinner, more muted and less interesting version of what came before. At least it doesn't overstay its welcome and never bored me, which pushed it just up to an extremely light 6/10, but it's hard to recommend especially in comparison with their previous work. If you're a fan of this sort of late 90s sound or blend, check out records like Questimation or Welding The C:/ - they're far stronger than this.

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