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Meat Beat Manifesto, "Opaque Couché"

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cover imageBilled as a companion piece to 2018's stellar Impossible Star, Opaque Couché continues Meat Beat's recent hot streak with a double album packed with inventive and meticulously crafted dance music virtuosity.  Given that Jack Dangers' work has passed though quite a succession of different phases over the years, Impossible Star is indeed Opaque Couché's closest reference point, yet the two albums go in significantly different directions within their roughly similar stylistic territories (and only this one pays homage to one of the world's ugliest colors).  Whereas its predecessor embraced the feel of an inhuman and paranoid sci-fi dystopia, Opaque Couché takes that futuristic bent in much more playful and propulsively kinetic direction.  Naturally, it all sounds great, as Dangers is a singularly exacting producer.  His true genius, however, lies in how seamlessly he is able to mash together high art, deadpan kitsch, and vibrantly infectious drum loops.  Admittedly, that has been true for quite a long time, but he seems to creep closer and closer to achieving the perfect balance with each new release.

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The album opens on a deceptively creepy note, as "Untroduction" cultivates a palpable sense of impending menace with its gnarled, sweeping synth drones and cryptic samples from a psychological experiment.  Unexpectedly, however, it segues into a killer party rather than bleakly futuristic alienation, as "Pin Drop" unleashes quite an amazing variation on the classic "amen break."   Musically, Dangers and Ben Stokes flesh out their brilliantly clattering groove with a deep bass line, some blurrily surreal chords, and a ghostly melody, but none of those elements are the real focus.  The hyper-kinetic drumming is the heart of the piece and everything else is mere icing on the cake.  In fact, "Pin Drop" fondly reminds me of all of the times I have been wandering around a city and stumbled upon an insanely virtuosic and funky drummer going absolutely bananas in a park or square.  The beat itself is a familiar one, of course, yet Dangers and Stokes keep it fresh and wild with a vibrant array of fills.  There are also some occasional surprises like the fleeting intrusion of a toasting MC that add nicely to the sense that the whole thing is about to careen off the rails at any second.  It never does, of course, but does a glorious job of riding that line til the very end.  Wisely, the duo refrain from ever trying to repeat the same magic formula, but they do return to Jungle-style break beats a couple more times with fresh twists.  On the more nervous-sounding "No Design," for example, the frenetic snares are augmented by disorienting swirl of robotic, chopped, and stuttering voices.  "Critical Soul Vibrations," on the other hand, sounds geared for the dancefloor: the robot voices feel more like hooks and there are some fairly musical and jazzy vocal samples that provide welcome human warmth.

The rest of the album can roughly be divided into two categories that are best described as "robot funk" and "minimalist electronic jazz," though there are a handful of detours into brooding atmospheric vignettes, brief synthesizer experiments, and more industrial-minded fare scattered about.  Some of the more polished and jazz-influenced pieces admittedly leave me cold, but highlights improbably come from every one of those directions at least once.  Meat Beat's "robot funk" side is perhaps best represented by the lumbering groove and squirming, sputtering electronics of "CarrierFreq," which also features a weirdly poignant hook of a digitized voice lamenting "I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do."  A far more unlikely pleasure is "Forced to Lie," which marries blurred and warped jazz chords with a trip-hop beat…and a repeating loop of Wolfman Jack addressing some "birdbrains."  Elsewhere, a thumping house beat relentlessly propels the wonderfully jabbering and gurgling synths of "Present For Sally," while Dangers' distorted and deconstructed "rapping" adds an unpredictable and texturally vibrant splash of color to an insistent, industrial-damaged pulse in "[Ear-Lips]."  Meat Beat's jazzier side offers some pleasures as well, though that side tends to work best when its smoothness it counterbalanced by erratic, deranged-sounding synth patterns (which is the happily the case in "Call Sign").  Without that element of chaos, the jazzier touches walk a precariously fine line between endearingly woozy "space age bachelor pad" sounds and something that I could easily imagine getting licensed for a fashion runway show.  For the most part, however, I very much appreciate the sophisticated approach to harmony on the album.  There is a lot of underutilized ground between straight-up major and minor chords and Meat Beat are unusually adept at exploiting it (as far as electronic music artists are concerned, anyway).

It is worth noting that Meat Beat Manifesto have been releasing albums for thirty years at this point, yet Impossible Star was the first MBM album to fully connect with me.  That does not necessarily mean that it towers above the rest of their oeuvre, though it is a truly excellent album.  Instead, Dangers' work has always been an omnipresent outlier for many of my own phases, forever hovering around the "now" sound of electronic music, yet always too eclectic and off-center to fully fit.  With these last two albums, however, it feels like Meat Beat has reached an unusual creative plateau where they are no longer in the thrall of the zeitgeist.  Nevertheless, Dangers' long history in the trenches of underground dance music's evolution has left him singularly skilled at tossing off constant seamless allusions to its varying styles.  Due to that, this album manages to feel fresh and contemporary even while veering off in its own occasionally backwards-looking direction.  That freewheeling and sometimes mischievous eclecticism is probably what defines Opaque Couché the most, as it is a kaleidoscopic mélange of styles improbably held together by a predilection for retro-futurism, unusual sample juxtapositions, and production perfectionism.  These pieces vary quite a bit from one another, but they never feel like they do not belong together.  Moreover, Dangers and Stokes seem quite easily bored by straightforward tropes, which ensures that even the more vanilla pieces have a more fluid and ambitious approach to bass lines, chords, and beats than most of their contemporaries.  Of the two sister releases, I suppose I prefer the darker, more focused vision of Impossible Star to the more scattered and fun Opaque Couché, but the highlights and endearing curveballs of Couché add up to a similarly impressive achievement.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Friday, 24 May 2019 07:02  


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