Did you listen to electronica back in the early 90s? This was the time when artists like Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers were making big waves around the world both for their beats as well as their unique music videos. What made these artists so popular was their ability to not simply rely on synths and other typical electronic textures, but to innovate and incorporate more elements of rock music into the mix. It’s a big reason why you heard “Smack My Bitch Up” or “Busy Child” on alternative rock radio. Unfortunately like so many trends, that sound eventually died out, and that’s part of the reason why Prodigy haven’t put out much worth mentioning in the last several years and why The Chemical Brothers are at the point where the soundtrack to a movie seems like a good idea (to be fair, they did a nice job with the “Hanna” soundtrack). There are still plenty of people nostalgic for that “90s electronica” sound, even whilst chillwave or glo-fi tries to adjust to survive. Considering that 90s garage rock has been having its own resurgence in the last couple years via bands like Yuck and Japandroids, electronica might as well have its turn. Thanks to Pictureplane, that’s more of a reality than ever. The project of Travis Egedy, Pictureplane burst onto the music scene in 2009 via the album “Dark Rift”. Songs like “Goth Star” provided some darker, more interesting twists and turns to the traditional mode of electronic music and pretty much signalled the creation of the subgenre of music known as “witch house”. The new Pictureplane record “Thee Physical” is cut from a similar but by no means the same cloth – commercial accessibility and smarter song structures take precedence, helping to make this one of the more fascinating electro albums so far this year.
The relationship between Pictureplane and the band HEALTH has been one of mutual admiration and friendship it seems, and the result of that has ultimately bettered both acts. For HEALTH’s sake, Pictureplane has served as helper and remixer on their last “DISCO” album, work that actually went a long way towards making the band’s somewhat difficult record a bit easier on the ears. In turn, HEALTH’s Jupiter Keyes played a large role by co-producing to help shape “Thee Physical”‘s sound into something more pop-friendly compared to the last album. There are far more active hooks, melodies that generally flow and loop better, and a stronger balance between the use of samples and live vocals. Egedy handles the vocals on close to every track, though often he’s not alone thanks to a number of quick one-word samples peppered in amongst the beats. With the melodies and beats carefully concocted, Egedy makes better and smarter use of his energetic but ultimately shaky vocals by placing them a touch farther into the background compared to his last album. They’re still remarkably functional and discernible, but without the potential hazard of having them appear weak or generally lacking. Yet in some cases the vocals are essential to make the track work. Opening cut “Body Mod” nearly stalls out until Egedy’s voice kicks in and propels the song in a very forward direction. Elsewhere the samples take free reign while Egedy’s singing plays second fiddle on a track like “Post Physical”, yet it does nothing to harm the song’s commercial appeal.
Not everything on “Thee Physical” works though, and those couple small issues do some remarkable damage to an otherwise solid effort. “Trancegender” contains what’s one of the strongest and most engaging hooks on the entire album, but gets bogged down in an excess of synths and beats all pushing for darkness and atmosphere. A similar darkness prevails on “Black Nails”, but while the track’s mixture of Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode-esque styles is compelling, the multiple layers of beats throw the main melody just a slight bit off-kilter to the point where you feel like it could have been so much more. At least the album is thematically sound, even if the subject matter tends towards the highly sexualized. One glance at the album cover’s leather-clad hand, along with song titles like “Sex Mechanism” and “Techno Fetish” should provide you with all the information you need as to what the overarching theme of the album is. Such subjects undoubtedly work well with the bump and grind of the dance floor, but not every track is built with that in mind. A couple of the songs featuring guitars, in particular a track like “Thee Power Hand” which closes the record, play closer to the rock and roll side of things, again with the 90s electronica references in place. Those minor detours create friction in the overall flow, thereby decreasing the impact an album like this could have. Taken individual track by track, there’s rarely an issue, but as a full piece there are noticeable missteps. Still, that doesn’t prevent “Thee Physical” from being a stronger and more exciting effort than Pictureplane’s debut, and the more commercially accessible pop-friendly melodies should bring a lot of new fans on board. Without a doubt, the next Pictureplane record could be the one that takes Egedy to the front doorstep of electronica’s greats.
Click past the jump to stream the entire album!