When listening to innovative, unique and unpredictable electronic artists like Autechre, Boards of Canada and Prefuse 73, the last thing you’re likely to be thinking is, “boy, this music sure could use some vocals.” Sure, sometimes it can work, especially in the case of Prefuse 73, but even Scott Herren can stand some restraint in that area, as his last album seemed to reliant upon guest contributors rather than to revolve around his own warm sound collages. The reason that experimental and intelligent forms of electronica work is because they don’t focus too heavily on pop structures—they’re able to break free from convention and make their own rules, creating their own formulas and concocting a new form of music that exists independent of “charts.” I would have previously made this statement about Magnetophone, the UK duo whose debut I Guess Sometimes I Need to Be Reminded of How Much You Love Me was a lovely and subtle IDM record in the vein of a more post-rock sounding Autechre. Five years later, however, a brand new record finds Magnetophone on the path to more obvious accessibility, with vocals, no less.
Matt Huish Saunders and John Hanson are clearly mining pop ground on their latest, The Man Who Ate The Man, and that, in theory, can go either way. In practice, The Man Who Ate The Man is surprisingly engaging, far more than Prefuse 73’s disappointing outing earlier this year, and more varied than Boards of Canada’s all instrumental Campfire Headphase as well. Yet, it might seem unfair, or even irrelevant, to compare this record to those, as it’s almost an entirely different genre. Despite some markedly IDM sounding moments, there’s a much more organic feel to many of these tracks, no doubt because of heavy use of guitar, drums, vocal and piano.
The first proper “song” of the record, “Kel’s Vintage Thought” is prime electro dance music, like a much more interesting Chemical Brothers. What’s more, Kelley and Kim Deal provide guitars and drums, respectively, on this upbeat track. But surprisingly, this is one of the few songs that doesn’t feature any vocals. “A Sad Ha Ha,” does, however, thanks to King Creosote, who shows up a few more times throughout the record. This dreamy, warm song moves away from the big beat sound of “Kel’s Vintage Thought” into more Björk-like realms of icy balladry. These two tracks are merely a jumping off point, however, and when “…And May Your Last Words Be a Chance to Make Things Better” comes around, the record really begins to reveal its compelling beauty. “Last Words” borrows more from My Bloody Valentine, as does “The Only Witching You’ll Be Doing.” And by this point, any notion of Magnetophone as an IDM group has gone out the window.
But then again, there are tracks like “Rae and Suzette” to remind one of Magnetophone’s roots. Exploding sounds reminiscent of bullets through bubble wrap punctuate this track, giving it a paradoxically warm and unsettling feel. “Benny’s Insobriety,” meanwhile, takes a drum `n’ bass beat, mixes it with buzzy organ melodies and a beatless vocal interlude. And “In The Hours After” sounds almost like fairly straightforward shoegazer pop. There are really no boundaries to Magnetophone’s music, which may be confusing, but exciting nonetheless.
Electronic music doesn’t always benefit from vocals, particularly when the music is too interesting to be touched up with mundane verse. Magnetophone, however, have gone against the grain and mixed pop music with ambient electronic sounds and textures, not unlike DNTEL did with his Life Is Full of Possibilities album. Only this one takes that album’s strengths to greater extremes, rocking out when it’s needed, and keeping quiet only long enough to offset the more upbeat moments. It may seem splintered at first, but the record is solid enough and varied enough that even on “shuffle,” it sounds like a strong and cohesive whole.
DNTEL – Life is Full of Possibilities
Lali Puna – Faking the Books
Mice Parade – Bem-Vinda Vontade
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.