Starting their latest album Memories off with a “the story so far” summary of their existing twisting cyberpunk narrative is probably a smart play by mind.in.a.box. Such recaps are often necessary for keeping up with the average weekly HBO ensemble drama; when you’re dealing with a meta-fictional set of albums spaced out over a decade with no small amount of confusion regarding which songs and narratives are “canon”, they’re a freaking godsend. Less pragmatically, though, there’s a Borgesian revelation in “Travel Guide” which gave us no small amount of delight: the tapes and music which have beckoned our protagonist Black forward, through night clubs and back alleys in an attempt to uncover the mystery of the “dreamweb” (a wholly digital aether, not unlike the most transcendent visions of the Singularity) have, in fact, been produced by mind.in.a.box. Stefan Poiss and co, thus, are not only serving as storytellers, but as key agents in that story. Where the line between Black and Poiss himself blurred considerably over the course of their last LP Revelations, Memories positions Stefan as a distinct entity within the grander storyline. Is that kind of distinction important to parse? Only insofar as the fictive elements of the band have ever been necessary for enjoying their music, as it stands this record seems fairly concerned with shoring up the plot even as it descends further down the rabbit hole. We won’t give any further spoilers, but the density of the narrative in this chapter is matched by a collection of tracks which pack just about all of the sounds and styles m.i.a.b. die-hards could possibly want.
Much of the advance chatter we caught seemed to focus on that narrative, with an interest in how much more exposition and plot advancement we’d be treated to after the somewhat reflective Revelations. Memories has loads more to offer folks who prefer the classic mode of m.i.a.b. records though, while the longer, proggier song structures of newer releases is more or less maintained, but there’s a real return to the classic cyber instrumentation of many of the songs, with chimes and huge sweeping pads colouring in the textures which were most recently handled by guitars. While the rock instrumentation still makes appearances here and there (like the six string accents on the aforementioned opener “Travel Guide” and the processed power chords that show up on “Face It”), this is more or less a classic mind.in.a.box album from a production and sound design standpoint. It’s a comfortable place for m.i.a.b. to be in 2015, and should be pleasing to fans who prefer the trance influence of the first three albums to the stylistic digressions of the latter two.
It feels strange to praise a project who won us over by restlessly pushing forward for refocusing on some of their established ideas. Then again, there’s plenty to be said for revisiting your greatest hits without completely replicating them. Those of you who have internalized Dreamweb and Crossroads (and the response to our recent rough guide to the band suggests there’s more than a few of you) should be pleased to hear the return of Stefan’s pitched up female vocal style on the airy futurepop of “I Knew” and the cleverly arranged “Timelessness”. Similarly the deep monotone delivery that Poiss used extensively on the band’s early material comes back strong on “Unforgiving World”, a contrast and anchor to the ever ascending instrumental. There’s a distinct compromise between structure and sound that forms the foundation of the album, where the band’s most familiar sonic tropes are pressed into service building bigger and more elaborate songs than ever before.
mind.in.a.box hasn’t ever really lacked for musical substance, but in a lot of ways Memories feels especially weighty and, well, substantial. Some of that impression is no doubt due to how busy most of these songs are. Even its most straightforward moments like “Synchronize” cram in innumerable interwoven synthlines, melodic counterpoints, builds, breakdowns and a whole ecosystem of complex delays, verbs and other time based effects that never seem to trip over one another regardless of their density in the mix. Even when the songs aren’t specifically complicated from a technical standpoint they’re made to feel enormous, see the gargantuan climax of “Face It” or the penultimate track “Shake-Up” where all the emotion and energy of the record is allowed to peak before dissipating gradually through the exposition of outro song “5nchr0ni7e”. The production is as stellar as always, but never as an ends unto itself; mind.in.a.box isn’t, and hasn’t ever been an exercise in technicality for its own sake.
Between the apotheosis of long-running story and character threads and the flurry of virtuoso programming, Memories touches on every single element that earned m.i.a.b. their rep as one of the most beloved cult bands in industrial. That complexity might come at the cost of accessibility, though. While Memories might well quickly become many fans’ favourite m.i.a.b. record, it absolutely needs to be heard within the broader context of sound and story established thus far: recaps aside, it’d be nigh-impossible for newcomers to jump in at this stage and ferret out much of anything story-wise, and the comparative absence of the instantly anthemic musical elements of Crossroads or Revelations might cause further bafflement. That said, we don’t judge the final chapters of film trilogies in vacuums, we don’t expect the final chapter of a book to stand by itself, and mind.in.a.box didn’t build the passionate following they now hold by writing easily digestible club-bangers. The faithful will be rewarded.