Matthew Dear – Black City (Ghostly International/Border) CD Review

Matthew Dear runs the sporadically very good Ghostly International label, and as is the norm for electronic artists, goes under a plethora of nom-de-guises. His albums are universally acclaimed, and he is what you would call a Pitchfork fave. (If you don’t know what that means, go back five places).

The difficulty I have encountered with Dear mostly centres around my personal distaste for vocals unless they’re spectacularly good. There’s a reason for the majority of great contemporary electronic music being sans voice; the textural and rhythmic possibilities of computer music make the voice extraneous. Voice also intrudes on the hermeticism of electronics, bringing in an alien smattering of human DNA, and smudges a perfectly clean sonic environment.

There have always been exceptions where electronic music and voices coincided and complemented each other, but they’re rare as hen’s teeth: Kraftwerk. Um. Kraftwerk…

Matthew Dear “sings” in a kind of metallic croak (members of the Y-Front Generation might call it a croon) that certainly tags his music, and distinguishes it from any other electronic exponent; but also limits the music’s horizons.

Which makes this a happy occasion, because, with Black City, Dear has broken through his limitations, and made a real cracker.

Firstly, the album is less overtly dance-oriented than before, which really opens up its potential for working as a bunch of songs. Dear has obviously sweated over these things, and every note and beat sounds as if he’s worked hard to extract just what he wanted in terms of drama and dynamics.

This is a dark, noirish work and to be honest, it’s not entirely without precedent: John Foxx’s early solo work (1980’s Metamatic, especially) is a close cousin only separated by decades, country of origin and available technology. But Foxx’s landmark record was a stab in the dark heart of a dark decade, and this album appears to be trying for a similar sense of import. I haven’t listened to it enough yet to know whether the songs will stack up to intense scrutiny, but it’s hugely impressive stuff.

This time he’s taken his voice and manicured it into a multi-tracked demon, and in consort with the powerful sound of the music constructions, it works a treat. The whole thing’s been mixed more like a rock album, with a combination of incredibly deep and dynamic fizzing and zooming electronics, and well-placed compression to add attack. It’s a lesson in power-mixing that some of the current crop of metal bands could use, instead of letting some dick mess with the mix, jam it up to “loud” and let the whole thing whither on the vine when it’s played on a full-spectrum stereo.

Black City is an occasionally abrasive record that might appeal as much to Nine Inch Nails fans as those who followed Dear for his crunchy electronica or his more dance-friendly tech-house moves. It’s not entirely grim, however, and there’s a sensuality here amongst the shadows that’s clearly apparent on a song like ‘You Put A Smell On Me’. Brilliant title, that. GARY STEEL

Sound = 4/5

Music = 4/5

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