Australia - Full Moon 146 - 08/16/08
O Soundtrack My Heart
When Pivot made waves in Australia with their immaculate debut album Make Me Love You back in 2005, the music was undeniably smooth, with some stunning playing from guitarist Richard Pike and his drumming brother Laurence. But all that changed. Amid creative tensions, laptop artist Dave Miller replaced turntablist Dave Bowman, then bassist Neal Sutherland and keyboard player Adrian Klumpes left. With sophomore album O Soundtrack My Heart finally released through legendary label Warp, Pivot have moved light-years beyond their debut and are now looking to rip a hole in the space-time continuum with their futuristic electro-synth-rock.
Although I'm a fan of their debut, after repeated listens there's a distinct sense of a band playing themselves into a corner. Everything is so carefully orchestrated and easy on the ear that you soon become bored of how 'safe' it all sounds. No such problem with Soundtrack - although there's no denying that this new album is beautifully produced, the music sounds so much more alive and emotional, despite the colder palette of sounds.
Gone are the warm ripples of Rhodes, the wickety-wack of scratched vinyl, the smooth basslines and stop-start drum patterns indicative of instrumental hip-hop. In their place we find layer upon layer of stuttering, propulsive beats, ferocious slashes of guitar, and stacks of synths. In fact, the introduction of synthesizers seems to be the big theme for the new Pivot, with Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre their confessed touchstones for this new sound, along with post-punk songsmiths Talking Heads and the glitchy electronica of Autechre.
Being cast into the new Pivot sound is initially an alienating experience. Songs explode and jerk, ricocheting between the speakers in fits and starts, each sound precise and powerful, hard as diamonds. However, with repeated listens, what really strikes the listener is how masterfully the band have imbued such a cold musical palette with a strong, beating human heart - and some absolutely stunning songwriting.
Opener "October" sets the tone for what is essentially a concept album, best consumed as a whole. Percussive ticking is juxtaposed against subtle, ambiguous guitar chords and a high, plaintive vocal tone, creating a feeling of expectation and vague foreboding.
This expectation is more than satisfied by first single, "In The Blood". With its superb synth bassline and thumping beat, it's definitely one to play loud. Richard Pike almost drags the song off the rails with a minute-long atonal guitar solo, which is a thrilling and ballsy move, but the song's massive momentum more than wins out. Along with "Windowlicker" it gets my vote as one of Warp's best singles to date - and that's saying something.
The title track is probably my favourite song on the album, simply because it counterbalances the band's penchant for icy synths with skyscraping melodies and thunderous beats. If this is the soundtrack to anything, it's a massive space station breaking up under attack, alarms wailing. It breaks down, builds up, rocks like a motherfucker, piles melody upon melody, with a climactic synth line that has me punching the sky, and by the time you reach the end you hear the faint sound of drumsticks falling to the floor - like the listener's jaw.
"Fool In Rain" provides some respite from the chaos, clearly showcasing the band's interest in Jarre and Vangelis as wistful synth melodies ride atop an electronic beat. "Sing, You Sinners" follows, building to two subtle crescendos using an angular riff and some gorgeous wordless vocal harmonies, cascading with reverb. This use of vocals is mirrored elsewhere in the first half of "Epsilon", which helps to lend the album a much-needed human touch.
"Sweet Memory" returns to the more anthemic territory of the title track, seesawing between a bass-heavy riff and more contemplative, jazzy guitar chords. Pivot excel at this kind of juxtaposition, which is found in spades on their debut, but on "Sweet Memory" they de-rail the song towards the end with a glitchy breakdown followed by a massive robotic groove, which then erupts into the kind of euphoric climax that most instrumental bands repetitively recycle in song after song. Here, Pivot use it brilliantly and then move on to other, more interesting territory.
"'Love Like I" is an odd, subtle track that works well within the context of the whole. It lends the middle of the album some much-needed space with its tentative and dissonant feel, before gradually morphing into the kind of glitchy percussive loops at which Kieran Hebden excels, especially on Rounds. If there's ever any doubt that Pivot are an ideal fit within the Warp catalogue, this track is it. In direct contrast, "Didn't I Furious" leans more towards punk and electro-rock with its basic riff and stuttering beat. Crude but effective, this short song has a filthy, addictive groove with a snarling guitar line, fuzzed to the edge of destruction.
The first half of "Epsilon" is probably the closest that the new Pivot come to their old sound. In structure it's probably the simplest song here, with a gorgeous first half featuring sighing guitars atop skittering drums and snatches of breathy voice. Then, in the second half a driving beat and bassline come in, with a catchy, heavily effected guitar line. Unfortunately, the main riff starts to drag after several repeats, even with the introduction of some synth countermelodies, and the song would have benefited from a judicious fade-out.
Thankfully this is more than redeemed by the epic, anthemic "Nothing Hurts Machine", featuring a farty, stomping beat and a great fuzz-octave guitar line. The song then settles into a more mellow passage before returning to the main theme, this time more ominous. The mellow passage then returns before a mighty climax with fat, fuzzy power chords and what sound like alarms screaming out as echoes zip and swoop. This is definitely the part of the film playing in the listener's head when the alien mothership goes down in flames.
Closer "My Heart Like Marching Band" is another track that serves the narrative arc of the album, but doesn't stand up particularly well to listening in isolation. Sad, sparse, cascading synth tones lead into an ascending melody like a question mark in the night sky before the album fades into nothingness, leaving the sound of lonely footsteps crunching in the snow.
O Soundtrack My Heart is a fractured, explosive sci-fi epic that contains some stunning songs, but is best appreciated as a whole. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed an album as much as this, not just in terms of the sheer visceral thrill of listening to three amazing musicians firing on all cylinders, but also in terms of immersing myself in a painstakingly constructed and expertly executed creative vision, which extends to the album's excellent artwork by Oxygene artist Michel Granger.
The attention to detail and production flourishes are truly breathtaking throughout, rewarding a good pair of headphones. Kudos must also go to John McEntire for an excellent mixing job, which has aided the band in setting so many compelling sounds within a living, breathing, three-dimensional soundfield of astonishing depth and clarity.
In short, O Sountrack My Heart is a stone-cold masterpiece. If a better album is released this year, I'll eat my Jazzmaster.
Copyright © 2008 Tim Clarke