Album Reviews: Fuck Buttons, These New Puritans, and a throwback to Madvillain

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Fuck Buttons — Slow Focus

Fuck Buttons’ newest record, Slow Focus, is about as aptly named as any album you’re likely to listen to this year. Made up of seven tracks — the longest of which clocks in at over 10 minutes — the duo’s third effort finds seven ways to build momentum through spacey synths, robotic drum machines and electronics that remind of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack for The Social Network.

Finding an aggressive and somewhat cacophonous groove for all of their seven songs, Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power proceed to engrave each one into their listeners’ skulls, insistently repeating the same riffs while slowly building momentum by adding reverb, tape hiss, and other electronica staples.

Despite each track reaching a respectably heavy and militant end, Slow Focus quickly becomes a demanding and ultimately tiring listen. Its tracks are only sporadically inventive, and each one seems to rely on the same cut-and-paste format in an effort to create atmosphere.

Of course, this is a common trope in trance music, which seems to inform Slow Focus more directly than any of Fuck Buttons’ previous records. However, like so much trance music released today, the duo substitute genuine creativity for iron-fisted insistence, asking listeners to find intricacies in their music rather than creating music that genuinely incites closer inspection.

Slow Focus does have its strong moments: Power and Hung are capable producers, and their mix on this record is arguably their harshest and most interesting yet, especially on tracks like “Sentients” and album closer “Hidden XS.” But the album’s highlights are so recycled and regurgitated that their original potency inevitably dims over each track’s lifespan.

Though Slow Focus is an admirable experiment in songwriting and production, its repetitiveness and meandering pace result in an dull and underwhelming listening experience.

 

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These New Puritans — Field of Reeds

Field of Reeds is an album that demands attention, although it seems uninterested in attracting it in any conventional way. The nine tracks on These New Puritans’ remarkable third record would probably be best described as neo-classical, although they often incorporate post-rock, art rock and ambient elements.

The band, who have yet to repeat themselves with any of their formal releases, have crafted one of the most challenging — and, ultimately, most rewarding — albums of the year.

None of the album’s pieces can be comfortably described as songs, although “Fragment Two” has the most in common with conventional song structure. Bandleader Jack Barnett seems content to let his imagination guide his songwriting.

This results in a particularly unique brand of avant-pop, which incorporates breathtakingly beautiful horns and strings, as well as guest vocals from Brazilian songstress Elisa Rodrigues, a pitch-shifted children’s choir and Adrian Peacock, whose baritone is the lowest in England.

Though Field of Reeds is about as far from easy listening as you’re likely to venture this year — tracks like “Dream” and “Spiral” seem uninterested in any structure, let alone a typical verse-chorus-verse — it’s grounded by an emotional core and Barnett’s slippery, understated vocal.

His wordless drone on “V (Island Song)” and pensive croon on album closer “Field of Reeds” ache along with the album’s fluctuating instrumentation. Elsewhere, the album’s expansive instrumental passages seem to benefit from Barnett’s absence, building an anxious yet ethereal atmosphere by mixing electronics with melancholic horn arrangements — all of which are bathed in impeccable studio production.

Listening to Field of Reeds in a single sitting might prove an arduous experience, but its intricacies and uncommon elegance are well worth the effort. These New Puritans have released their best LP yet, an ambitious effort that ultimately succeeds in every way.

 

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Throwback: Madvillain — Madvillainy

Any attempt to fit elusive emcee MF Doom and DJ-turned-producer Madlib into hip-hop’s history books will inevitably fail. The two exist on the fringes of the genre’s sprawling web of interconnectivity, eschewing the glamour and fame of chart-topping success for the quiet dignity of independent hip-hop mythopoeia.

In the years prior to Madvillainy, both men had been quietly building their reputation on the lower frequencies of the hip-hop community, and their one — and, still, their only album — is the result of both artists hitting their creative peaks simultaneously.

The album’s 22 tracks rarely range beyond the three-minute mark, and only a handful have anything that could be described as choruses. MF Doom’s uniform flow and abstract lyrics are more interested in imagery than narrative, and Madlib’s gloomy production seems to place the album in the realm of film noir and 1930s-era radio plays.

But despite its eccentricities, Madvillainy is as compulsively listenable as it is creative. The unusual hook on “Accordion” and the sung / spoken half-chorus of “Rainbows” are far from hip-hop staples, but are infectious all the same.

In contrast, the sinister bass-line of “Meat Grinder” and the stoned odyssey of “America’s Most Blunted” re-contextualize some of hip-hop’s most well-worn cliches. The album’s reliance on retro film and TV snippets seem to enhance its timelessness, and its relatively small lineup of guest stars helps the duo retain their anonymous personas.

Madvillainy capitalizes on its duo’s biggest talents — MF Doom’s evocative lyrics and disciplined delivery, Madlib’s clever and idiosyncratic production — and ends up even greater than the sum of its parts. Though it’s doubtlessly one of the genre’s oddballs, Madvillainy is also one of its biggest successes: this is as intelligent, esoteric and goddamn as enjoyable as hip-hop gets.