Friend of ID:UD Eric Gottesman once likened the music of Volt 9000 to “an ohGr album made on a Sega Genesis”, a description I think is pretty accurate, up until Conopoly at any rate. Toronto’s Corey Gorski has been synthesizing rubbery, song-oriented post-industrial indebted to the Skinny Puppy singer’s solo efforts with chiptune sounds for a few years now, a mixture that has proven as colourful as the bright cartoon and video game artwork that has accompanied his self-released albums. In contrast, his first album for Artoffact is on the whole far more reserved; while no less listenable it certainly feels like a darker and more measured effort.
Part of that shift comes from the specific palette Gorski and new member Andrew Dobbels are working with this time out, with clean, bleepy synth sounds boxed in on all sides with gritty basses and pads. Listening to Conopoly back to back with 2012’s Mutronix, there’s a sense that the former’s songs could easily have been slotted into the bright, spastic production style of the latter, but have instead been stretched and eroded with a layer of digital rust. The difference is made clear on numbers like “Illuminist”, where a strong vocal performance from Gorski is woven through spiky wind-up drums, the melodic elements obscured by a haze of effects that give the impression of mechanical failure. That theme of malfunction carries over into the pointed interstitial song “Speak and Spell”, where the titular 80s learning toy awards victory to an unseen user for ironically spelling “pleasure” as m-o-n-e-y backed by a menacingly funky instrumental.
If anything though, the timbre of the record is more in line with Gorski’s lyrics about corporate greed and its human cost than at any time in the past. “Game of Drones” is a cute name for a song, but the acerbic synth lead and ominous transition of bird noises into synthetic peeps perfectly match the song’s message about complacency and the erosion of personal freedoms (hinting at the pacifying effects of television and mass media, an idea explored more fully on the grim, lilting “Echodrone”). I feel a bit foolish for never having made the connection before, but I don’t think comparisons to Snog are much of a stretch, especially when Volt 9000 are one of the few scene bands penning explicitly critical songs about banks (the sad, fluttering “House of Cards”) and GMOs (the sample-laden “How To Make a Monster”).
It’s a bold move to trade some of your accessibility in for bleak atmospherics on your first label-released album, and admittedly I wasn’t entirely convinced it worked at first blush. In spite of their lyrics V9K have usually come across as a fun band, an adjective Conopoly pretty much leaves in the dust. It’s the strength of the songs that ultimately sells the album though, and while I think it’s a harder album to “get”, the listening experience is that much better for challenging the listener and shaking up their expectations. For all the comparisons I’ve made over the course of this review, this feels like the point where Volt 9000 have stepped out of the shadow of the easy descriptors that have defined them up ’til now. It’s a good record, and one that deserves it’s place in the exciting new wave of Canadian industrial acts.