Italy’s Blank have spaced out the time between their LPs, having waited almost five years since Impact Zone to release third record Dark Retreat. In a way that seems fitting, as not only does their work show craftsmanship in its production and arrangement (Vancouver acquits itself well on Dark Retreat with production work from Chris Peterson and recent transplant Seb Komor), but it also feels like it’s stewarding a road that’s felt increasingly less traveled in the past ten years. Like Cryo, Blank hearken back to a millennial time before aggrotech, to a time when futurepop still showed a connection to the EBM tradition which it grew out of (instead of slavishly following years behind trance’s footsteps), and build forward from that historical point, incorporating beats and lush adornment which feel like they’re drawn from a broader spectrum of electronic music’s past decade.
Dark Retreat starts out with its first side marked by a frantic and busy futurepop/electro hybrid which doesn’t mess with any builds or individual introduction of its (well-layered) elements. “Subliminal Man” spatters the space around its simple core groove with pads shifting in and out of focus and all manner of colourful bubbles and squeaks. “DioChemicals” is perhaps too busy, swapping sounds in and out like an over-caffeinated switchboard operator, but still fun. “ZeroTolerance” is a better track and a solid club bid, coming across like Grendel’s recent work laid over the chassis of “Oxyacetylene”.
While “ZeroTolerance” isn’t the only quality bumper, for my money Dark Retreat is better when it slows and chills: “Dreamscape” is very reminiscent of Liquid Divine, specifically Autophobia‘s “Ghost”, and there’s a lovely turn from Kirlian Camera’s Elena Fossi (not sure if it’s just observation bias, but it seems like Italian acts hop over for guest spots on each others albums more regularly than other nationalities). Additionally, Davide Mazza’s scratchy, lightly distorted vocals, while not revolutionary on their on, sit well in juxtaposition to the smooth and mellow tracks, giving them some extra grit and tension.
Dark Retreat‘s biggest shortcoming lies in its length: closing in on seventy minutes, there are several tracks which either overlap too snugly with others or just hover in a holding pattern for a couple of minutes too long (“Eisengrau”‘s programming is great, but at six and a half minutes begins to wear itself out). At ten or fifteen minutes shorter, I feel as though we’d have a back to front scorcher on our hands.
As mentioned at the outset, this record feels strongly connected to a particular branch of Our Thing. Rather than a nostalgia act, though, Blank feel as though they’ve moved on from the schism dividing their reality from ours (“In this month’s issue, Uatu the Watcher asks: What if Steril had conquered the planet instead of VNV?“), and while imperfect, Dark Retreat still makes for interesting listening while walking roads less taken.