(Not Not Fun, 2012)
If you want a single name to which you can refer when discussing the recent proliferation of New Age music into the indie consciousness – the nu–New Age, as like to cheekily (and yes, dorkily) call it – you have to begin with Dylan Ettinger. He has a pretty lengthy release list at Discogs, and his name is whispered in the hallowed corridors where Tron, Blade Runner, and Tangerine Dream reside. His most recognized work, 2010’s New Age Outlaws (also on Not Not Fun), is a masterpiece in synthesizer manipulation on which different planes of existence are regularly traversed, and they all look like the 3D world in that one “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons. Nothing but pulsing light and geometric matter. So tactile.
Wait – according to this interview, Ettinger’s kind of perplexed that New Age Outlaws is his best-known work: “I think it’s less indicative of my overall sound than any of my other tapes or releases. It’s a really long, spacious record….” So … the new record, Lifetime of Romance, doesn’t adhere to the NAO template? I don’t have to dig into my vocabulary for new and exciting uses for my store of sci-fi terminology or bone up on Vangelis’ soundtrack output? Actually, that’s kind of a relief. We can still talk Star Trek or something, though, if you want. Ettinger’s got a tape called Botany Bay after all.
I guess coming to Lifetime of Romance through those two releases isn’t the best way to prep for this review. One reason is that vocals figure prominently on Ettinger’s new release, and while he hasn’t completely eschewed them in the past, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’s been a heretofore instrumental artist. But look, for example, to last year’s Lion of Judah 7-inch EP, where Ettinger bared his voice over a synthetic and stoned dub template. There he cloaked his pipes in hiss; here there’s no way to imagine what he really sounds like – you can actually tell what he really sounds like. There’s still a little bit of effects residue left, but I think the newfound forefront-ness of the vox, coupled with the album’s thematic focus, suits the material.
(Can I say this without totally sounding douchey? I think he resembles Ian Curtis here. And he does it well.)
Lifetime of Romance, then, is a song cycle based around – I guess obviously – Ettinger’s treacherous relationship to, er, relationships. Romantic ones. And when you’re not in a good place there, the best thing to do is crank out a rambunctious song cycle in response. In Ettinger’s case, “rambunctious” translates to a dark synth pop/new wave sound, with a tense helping of post punk thrown in for good measure. Think Seattle’s A Frames covering “Tainted Love” using only synthesizers, and you’re getting pretty close. Plus some dub – always some dub. But this is the paranoid, jittery kind. A backbeat for a black disposition.
What’s intriguing here is the absolute approachability of many of these tunes – as I’ve alluded to, you don’t need a philosophy degree for this as you might on something like New Age Outlaws (or at least to shrink my head after hearing my personal theses on the record). We’re in honest-to-goodness pop territory here, at points, satisfying diversions to the types of synth hits that ruled the airwaves in the early 1980s. Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League are namedropped in Not Not Fun’s press materials, and that’s certainly fitting, especially on “Sport and Superstition,” an alternate-reality dance hit that sounds as suspicious as its title implies. “Arco Iris” strays into Gary Numan territory as filtered through Rutger Hauer’s monologues as Roy Batty. “Blue and Blue” ends the album on swirling synthesizers, calling to mind Spencer Krug’s and Hadji Bakara’s spooky lines in early Wolf Parade songs. “Wintermute” manages to channel Björk somehow, its beat recalling “Human Behavior” and its melodies seasick.
Ettinger doesn’t completely leave behind his penchant for more expansive and suggestive soundscapes, as “Sport and Superstition” spends over half its six-minute runtime constructing DOS-based communication channels to our selves within our cybernetic existence. (Yep, another Tron reference.) “Disparager” creeps along its dub framework for almost eight minutes, but the vocals drop out by the three-minute mark to allow for maximum cone toasting. The true masterpiece, though, is “Maude,” a triptych that begins by recalling Steve Hauschildt’s synthesizer burbling in his band Emeralds before devolving into an introspective drone punctuated by lonely sax during its second act. It ends on a decidedly dour dub note, and the placement of “18” after it – which sounds like a manifestation of the machinations of the MCP (Tron again!) – is an inspired counterpoint.
I can’t imagine a better starting point for the Dylan Ettinger newbie than Lifetime of Romance – it’s clearly his most accessible work to date, and as he continuously reinvents his sound within a stylistic framework capable of fractalled tangents and marathon minimalism, it might be the only place the casual fan may be able to dip his or her toe. But that’s selling the man short – while Lifetime of Romance is certainly a satisfying listen, there’s a whole back catalog to explore. And one with abundant sci-fi references. … Hey, wait for me!
RIYL: Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, Gary Numan, A-Frames, L.A. Vampires
“18” / “BLUE AND BLUE” (live)