Fuck Buttons, 'Slow Focus' (ATP) Review

8
Slow Focus
SPIN Essentials
Release Date: July 24, 2013
Label: ATP

by Philip Sherburne

The line between the dance floor and the void has rarely felt more porous than in 2013, a year that has seen bold, bewildering, and body-centric new records from the Knife, James Holden, Blondes, Jon Hopkins, Morphosis, Container, Stave, and Pete Swanson. (Add to that list Black Dice's Eric Copeland, whose forthcoming Joke in the Hole sounds like Tackhead and Raymond Scott collaborating on chopped-and-screwed happy hardcore.) While mainstream dance music has devolved into pop on steroids, the techno/house middle ground chugs away with rote functionalism, and great swaths of the so-called underground kneel at the altar of retro fealty, motley margin-walkers like the aforementioned are forging an alternative tradition out of electronics, improvisation, and the autodidactic spirit of DIY. And while they're suspicious of structure, perhaps, they remain laser-focused on unlocking serotonin's rush.

We're not talking about "Intelligent Dance Music," though — god, no. Where that was all about clean-lined vectors (and microwaving hip-hop and techno rhythms until they disintegrated into a sizzling heap), the new technoise is all about the throb, the overdrive, the overflow: thick with brown notes and muddled subs and beats so bulbous they distort the shape of everything around them. Where the great bulk of IDM was cautious, this stuff revels in the mess that results when you push a 303 through an amp that goes to 11.

Whatever you call the new, rhythm-based noise — actually, "based noise" would be an awesome term — England's Fuck Buttons have been as integral to its development as anyone. The duo of Andrew Hung and John Power emerged in 2008 with Street Horrrsing, a gritty and teeth-grittingly abrasive album that snuck tribal rhythms beneath sheets of blackened noise, overdriven synthesizer drones, and vocals so distorted they made ham radio sound hi-fi in comparison. It scanned as a noise record, but it also functioned as a techno Trojan Horse, with "Bright Tomorrow" coming off like Liars covering the Field. They stepped up the rave quotient on 2009's Tarot Sport, produced by Andrew Weatherall and released, like all their records, on ATP Recordings; fuller in its sonics, more committed in its embrace of four-to-the-floor urges, the album sounded like some bastard offspring of Black Dice and Simian Mobile Disco, or Emeralds and Darude.

Slow Focus is Fuck Buttons' fullest realization of this Third Way yet, a masterful synthesis of seemingly incompatible elements into a full-on maelstrom of churning rhythms and power-drill drones. The opening "Brainfreeze" takes its pummeled scuzz from Unwound and its supernova synthesizers from Rustie; alternately, you might imagine Savage Republic backing Gary Numan in his Urgh! A Music War performance (or, indeed, all four of those artists at once). "Year of the Dog" spins spiraling trance arpeggios into a black mass with overtones of Goblin's Zombi, some real choirs-at-the-gates-of-hell shit. "Sentient" sounds a little like Autechre as covered by Crystal Castles, but it also encompasses Konono No. 1 clang, the war-dance drums of Hans Zimmer's Inception score, and cascading organs straight outta "Also Sprach Zarathustra." "The Red Wing" employs the turgid breaks of illbient outliers like Witchman against a gravelly guitar sound that's a dead ringer for the queasy aluminum gurgle Metallica used on Master of Puppets. Dry as a death rattle, that same sawtoothed buzz appears frequently throughout the album, slitting tracks from end to end as their maximalist innards spill out in great, wet heaps.

As you might guess from all that, Fuck Buttons' is an enormously physical sound — not necessarily loud, although it is often that as well, but bristling with overtones, full to bursting, heavy as a thunderhead. It's all there in the name of the duo's studio, Space Mountain — a name that brings to mind telescoping distances, psychedelic energies, and, above all, physical mass and looming, overwhelming presence. As Power has said of their working method, "The one fundamental rule remains: We are in the same room when we write." And maybe it's rockist to dwell upon that — plenty of great music has been produced via Dropbox round-robin — but you really do get the sense that these are two people sharing each other's air and elbow room, egging each other on as they route floor toms through fuzz boxes and practice Baroque arpeggios over screen doors being slammed in slow motion.

As clever as Fuck Buttons are at cobbling together unlikely juxtapositions, they're master builders when it comes to tension and release. Take "Brainfreeze," which begins with a hard-panned trashcan racket, takes on buzzing synths, adds oscillating seagull cries, and gradually swells until the drums stop registering as percussive devices and are folded into its all-encompassing ebb and flow. It buffets you like a hard wind, plateaus into a single synthesizer tone, and then crescendos all over again, capturing the heart-in-mouth sublimity (in the 18th-century sense of the word) of coming up on really powerful drugs. And then, without warning, the bottom drops out, and we're left with 30 seconds of scrape and ping reminiscent of Seefeel's ambient-dub landmark, Succour.

"The Red Wing" develops just as stealthily. What starts out as a sparse, lo-fi approximation of DJ Shadow's "The Number Song" (which also fused boom-bap breaks with Metallica's guitars) slowly draws more and more elements into orbit around the groove — contrapuntal bleeps, keening Jon Hassell horns, and layer upon layer of buzzing, shimmering synthesizers — until you can no longer see the planets for the galaxy. The vertical axis — a pulse marked in vigorous up-and-down strokes — gets flipped on its side into one long, steady stream as the beat dissolves into pure motion.

Space Mountain is also the name of one of Walt Disney World's most famous attractions, of course, a sci-fi thrill ride that opened in 1975. Whether or not that was on Fuck Buttons' mind when they christened their studio, it's not hard to imagine their music as a kind of roller coaster itself, barely gripping the rails as it careens along its uncertain course. Commercial EDM has been compared to an amusement-park ride, too, and on the closing "Hidden XS," Fuck Buttons even explore the lurching rhythms of brute, brooding dubstep at its most outsized, lighters-in-the-air breakdowns and all; it sounds like Magnetic Man taking an encore with Fennesz, with an assist from the Edge on guitar. If based noise ever gets its own festival at the Las Vegas Speedway, Fuck Buttons belong on the main stage.

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