In Conversation is a feature in which the senior staff talk about a recent record we’re listening to. Not exactly a review, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: two music nerds having a conversation about an album with all the tangential nonsense, philosophical wanking, and hopefully insightful commentary that implies.
Alex: Tom Shear occupies a special place in Our Thing. Of the top tier artists lumped into futurepop when it broke, he managed to avoid the subsequent backlash against that style and has been steadily producing new material and touring for well over a decade at this point, usually to a pretty receptive audience. On a personal level the last two or three records haven’t been my particular cup of tea, but I’ve always been interested to see what he’s been up to. That’s mostly due to the fact that unlike a lot of his peers he hasn’t made any weird concessions to trends or remained doggedly stuck in one place: Tom Shear’s output always feels very genuine and meticulously crafted, you can’t help but admire what he brings to the table in each outing regardless of whether it strikes your specific fancy. Bruise fits well into that rubric, there are things I quite like on it, and things I like less but never at any point do I feel like Tom is treading water or just crapping out a record to do shows off the back of. The guy is a craftsman both as a producer and a songwriter and that goes a long way with me. I want to like what he does, which makes assessing a new album an interesting experience.
Bruce: I’ve referred to post-millennial futurepop fatigue a few times in recent months on these pages. It’s odd when I think about it, but while I’ve always enjoyed pretty much everything I’ve heard by Assemblage 23, I’ve never really actively sought Shear’s records out. I’m not sure if it was a function of being irritated by misplaced bids for mainstream crossover appeal within the subgenre (watch this space for my lengthy “Welcome To Earth is Our Thing’s equivalent of Metallica’s black album” rant), or the ever-increasing trance quotient (I’ve made no bones about the fact that I simply haven’t kept up with VNV since Futureperfect), but in any case I do feel as though I’ve given Tom Shear’s work short shrift for reasons apart from its own merits and flaws, and for that I’m regretful. Like you, I’ve always been impressed by the detailed production that goes into his work, and have always thought that his vocals carried a stately gravity that was perfectly suited to the work he does. Clearly that’s a popular opinion, as his being tapped for the interminably forestalled second Bruderschaft single shows, and if there’s a more awesome vocal juxtaposition in the history of electronic music than Tom taking the reins from The Gothsicles at the end of his revamp of “Mix This Song into A23’s Maps of Reality”, I don’t know what it is.
Anyway, with all that preamble, let’s get into Bruise: what did you like about it?
Alex: Well, first off there’s a quality to the album that I find, for lack of a better word, really “colourful”. I don’t mean bright and sunny, I mean that the synth voices and drum sounds all have this very full, rich-sounding quality that makes the record a really lush experience. What’s more, although it’s very much an Assemblage 23 record, it also feels much more progressive in terms of the kinds of sounds that are used on it, moreso than either Compass or Meta, in my opinion. If I’ve had a complaint about Tom’s stuff in the past, it’s that as a producer he’s so distinctive that it’s almost distracting. If that sounds like a weird issue let me give you an example: I remember thinking that Lost Signal’s first album (which Tom produced) benefited from his experience behind the boards but ended up sounding like a lite version of A23 in a lot of parts. Applied to his own stuff that’s obviously less of a grievance, but I think that perhaps my issue with the last couple of albums was just that I was too comfortable with what they sounded like before I ever heard them, there was nothing to shake up my expectations. So yeah, long story short, this sounds different without being a complete departure, which is really laudable.
Bruce: Yeah, there’s a pretty wide variety of tunes, not just in terms of tone, but also instrumentation. While, say, “Crosstalk” bounces along with the rhythms and leads I might expect to find in an A23 tune, there are some cool, well-sculpted accents that lend it a…I hate to say “modern” feel, but it doesn’t feel trapped in the early 2000’s despite having its core roots in classic futurepop steez. More important, though, is the spectrum of arrangement and genre. Some tracks have that massive, sweeping and lush sound that Shear nailed down so well years back, but others are way more stripped down than I expected (“The Other Side Of The Wall”). “Over And Out” feels like a more classically synthpop tune being grafted to current electro-pop production (kind of reminds me of some moments on OMD’s latest in that sense); I realise that the boundaries between synthpop, futurepop and electro-pop are extremely fuzzy and contentious, but I think Shear’s clearly crossing them at several points, and that’s nice. I think the electro-pop bits I’m hearing also hold a lot of subtle and tasteful nods to 90s era Depeche – the grimier, fuzzed out textures they were using then. Also, I think we’re in pretty clear accord that “The Noise Inside My Head” is aces, yes?
Alex: “Noise In My Head” is straight fire, in the way that it feels like a club song, but never insists on it, like “HEY HERE I AM, TIME TO DANCE TO ME”. Like, it has this big, really recognizable lead and and is really easy to latch onto lyrically but doesn’t pander at all, it’s just as complex as anything else on the record in terms of it’s attention to detail and construction. Lots of subtle touches like that distant, reverbed sounding synth on the chorus. I love it when a dancefloor song smashes the arbitrary “bigger/dumber” assumptions about the way songs designed for that purpose have to be constructed.
Speaking of “Noise Inside My Head”, man, can Tom Shear turn out a solid set of lyrics. It’s a song with a simple enough premise (Tom hears a sound, either metaphorical or literal that prevents him from sleeping), but EVERY line in it builds from that premise, it’s internally consistent, and in fact has a kind of resolution in the chorus (“It’s the noise that makes us human”). He clearly gives enough of a shit about what he’s doing to put in the effort to make lyrics that compliment the songs and aren’t afterthoughts. Furthermore, it’s an old trick of his (going back to “Bi-Polar” on Contempt) but I love when he uses effects or alters his delivery to complement the lyrical thrust of the song he’s singing. Like, on “Automaton” he uses a vocoder in a really tasteful fashion, and on “Darkflow” he uses a far more reserved, and well, darker singing voice than elsewhere. If that sounds kind of obvious, well, a lot of what makes Assemblage 23 great seems like it should be kind of obvious. That’s not to suggest he’s good because so many other acts suck, but if it’s as easy as Tom Shear makes it look, then why aren’t more people doing it? He’s a master at taking these sort of elementary concepts and executing them in ways that are clever.
Bruce: Well, the fact that he seems like such an exception in that regard is worthy of consideration, then. What was it about futurepop that seemed to make people think that if they took the VNV template, concocted a “manly tears” aesthetic, and sampled grizzled actors reciting reflective dialog, they could get by without sticking the landing and actually putting thought and work in? Were trance arpeggios the equivalent of the famous Sniffing Glue “this is a chord” poster to a generation of quixotic rivetheads? Was it the sudden glut of affordable DAWs and softsynths hitting the market? (Yes, I realise that most of those critiques could also be levied against aggrotech with some quick changes of specifics, but you’d have a hard time getting me to listen to half a dozen albums by the Hocico-by-numbers clones attentively enough to figure out which parts of that template got lost in the game of telephone. Yucch.)
Anyway, to sum up my thoughts on Bruise, I’m enjoying it and will definitely be spinning “Noise” and “The Other Side Of The Wall” (which I just realised would mix perfectly into Marsheaux’s “Breakthrough”). I’m glad that between this and “Revelations” there have been at least two records this year by bands inseparable from the futurepop tag which have really washed away a lot of the bad associations I have with that genre and made me want to listen to some of it again with fresh ears.
Alex: Yup, full marks for Bruise. It’s a deep record with a lot of listening potential, different songs have stuck out for me at different times depending on what I was doing. Right now I’m listening to “Over and Out” and the way the rock-sounding drums and the bassline intro lead into the verse makes it feel like a really good “bridge” song for club play, super useful for jumping between genres and tempos. Other than that, I took a quick skim through the disk of remixes that come with the 2-CD edition and there’s a couple of pretty good ones. The Grendel remix of “Noise Inside My Head” sounds like a slightly slower version of what he was doing on his last record, which is just fine by me since I love that album, and the Alter Der Ruine and iVardensphere mixes are both characteristic. I’m also amused that Daniel Myer’s remix of “Rain Falls Down” is called the “Vancouver Tribute remix”, not because it sounds like Puppy or FLA, but because it rains a lot here I guess. Funny.
I’m gonna be super interested to see how folks perceive this record, if only because for me it was one of those “Oh yeah, this is why I like this band” type albums. I don’t know that the popularity of Assemblage 23 has ever flagged all that much, but if you were gonna make an album to justify your continued relevance in a really fragmented scene (at least as far as what sounds are dominating) you couldn’t have done much better than Bruise. It’s got songs, it sounds good and it has that versatile quality where you can listen to it on the bus or in the club or while reading on the couch. That last one is hella important for an LP’s listening lifespan, I spend like, a 28th of my life in a nightclub, even the best strictly dancefloor record in the world is only ever gonna get a percentage of that from me. It’s a good album, and as someone who has been following the project for since the Gashed! days, I’m super pleased to see the project continue to grow and regenerate itself. Strong work Mr. Shear.