Out of Line
Following the ugly public break-up of And One, the group split into two camps; vocalist Naghavi retaining the name and reinducting former members Rick Shach and Joke Jay into the line-up, while latter-era member Gio Van Oli and co-founder Chris Ruiz formed their own project, PAKT. At its basest level, the latter’s debut record Berlin feels like an effort to distance themselves from And One’s legacy, trading much of the former’s sly pop sensibility for a more straight ahead EBM toolkit. Ironically, the pose throws the inevitable comparison of the two groups into sharp relief, and it’s nigh-impossible to listen to the record without hearing what’s missing, rather than what’s actually there.
To put it bluntly, Chris Ruiz simply doesn’t have much juice as a frontman. He undoubtedly understands the importance of the role; much of the music he made in his former group relied on a magnetic vocal presence to fill out distinctly minimal arrangements borrowed from classic electronic body music. While I’m sure he does his level best, there just isn’t much to say about his singing: it’s competent and not much else. It’s a weakness that can be ignored on some of the album’s better moments; between it’s syncopated drums, bassline and prominent cymbal work “Revolution” stays busy enough to compensate. At the other end of the spectrum, the bizarre “The Fish Rots From the Head Down” is so devoid of ornamentation that Ruiz’s voice ends up lending it an appropriately disaffected feel in the minimal style.
Elsewhere, the hole becomes a gaping chasm. The singles “Freiheit” and “Lichterloh” serve as good examples, although they’re not the only ones by far. They’re both well produced slices of club EBM, and make good use of PAKT’s capacity for quirky, memorable hooks. The issue with them is the void at their center; without someone with the charisma to sell them they languish in “decent song” territory, when they could have been good songs. That’s the kind of distinction that makes or breaks a record in the iPod era. When everyone has access to every good song in their library at all times, who has time for anything less?
I want to like Berlin. It has a good grasp of how to make EBM with an eye for melody and arrangement, the songs are well-written and don’t sound like a collection of loops being muted and unmuted. I actually feel bad for singling out Ruiz as the album’s problem, especially because he does get it right in a few spots. Sadly, for every “Grey Into Red” (on which it must be said the addition of female vocals on the chorus does wonders) where he pulls off a solid slowburn on the verse, you get an “All Reminds Me”, where the chorus and by extension the whole song is rendered limp by his lack of range. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest PAKT are capable of making solid records, whether they do or not will be entirely dependent on whether they can more consistently play to their strengths and write around their weaknesses.