7.4

Soft Metals: Lenses

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Soft Metals: <i>Lenses</i>

On their 2010 self-titled debut, Soft Metals freely crossed the unguarded borders that separate different realms of electronic music. They conceivably appealed to fans of both the transcontinental nights of Italians Do It Better’s roster and brave, unmapped frontiers in the underground dance scene, with nods to darkened warehouse discos, kraut endurance tests and straight-up experimental sounds. Despite this, there was a tendency to just lump Soft Metals with synth-pop also-rans, as if their association with Captured Tracks meant they were more akin to chillwave than Throbbing Gristle, whom they have notably covered.

In essence, the L.A.-via-Portland duo unfortunately needs people to not think about where they are from, who they play with or what label they are on and instead just engage with the album like any other text, with preconceptions checked at the door. Sophomore effort Lenses is another trip into the “interdisciplinary” world of synthesizers and the project of collaboration, with songs coming from a wide range of influences and not needing to be defined by a scene or a style.

Late-album cut ‘In The Air’ is the near-ideal result of this approach, with the beats showing their Kraftwerk debt by maintaining the same tempo and defining elements for the entirety of the song, while avoiding the repetition expected through building and releasing with smooth strokes, allowing the hypnotic pattern to entrance the audience while Patricia Hall’s voice lilts above the song and flutters back inside gracefully.

The confidence on Lenses is what impresses most. The drill-like squeals and wash of gritty texture on “Tell Me” blanket the vocals and let their feet hang out enough so that you barely know they are there. Better is when Soft Metals take the leap and lose the vocals completely, both on the busy and vibrant “Hourglass” and the experimental closer ‘Interobserver.’ Soft Metals make most sense when they check their pop inclinations at the door, and by the end of the album you can’t help but think they realize it.

And while the songs with vocals aren’t slouches, they do drift into too much of the same thing, with ‘No Turning Back’ jumping off with an intriguing, “Blue Velvet”-esque tone but loses its intrigue when the song over-embellishes the its implied directions. ‘On A Cloud,’ on the other hand tries to get by on texture alone, and even at four minutes long, the lack of songwriting is apparent, making it at best a transition to the album’s outstanding conclusion, and at worst a waste of space.

And space on Lenses is a precious commodity, with only eight songs offered, and only two of them drifting on for more than five minutes. The way that Soft Metals experiment with repetition without needing much time to do so is unusual and impressive, with Lenses ending up so much stronger for allowing the ideas behind the music to drift into view of the audience. By making an album that sounds mysterious without being mysterious, that which could feel sterile because of the electronic reliance instead feels very human and alive. And as Daft Punk showed earlier this year by getting away from the disconnect between person and machine that seems so inherent in dance and electronic realms, the next leap may be back to the organic, back to emotional connection. Soft Metals accomplish this through their collaboration, with the interaction of two living people responsible for the sounds, and their machines never obscuring that, resulting in one of the better electronic albums of the year.