The Decline of Pleasure
Los Angeles’ Sacred Skin have carved out a solid niche for themselves making what you could broadly call neo-new wave, working a retro sound that is more fluid and melodic than dour and angular post-punk, and with the songs and delivery to backup the eighties markers that have been looted by generic synthwave in recent years. This last point is the key to their debut The Decline of Pleasure; the duo of Brian DaMert and Brian Tarney use plenty of lush vintage design and production techniques, but have the hooks and conviction in delivery to legitimize the throwback conceit.
Album opener “Earthbound” is instructive in this regard: you’ll definitely notice the rubbery synth toms and big brassy synth patch that carries the verse, and the funky rhythm guitar that builds to a big solo, but what sticks is DaMert’s earnest delivery of the song’s sticky chorus. That same lesson applies to album highlight “Far Away”, where dreamy synthlines wend their way around the melancholic verse, providing a take-off for the instantly memorable hook, a package so complete that you could be forgiven for thinking it’s an era-appropriate deep soundtrack cut even before the Peter Hook bass-solo makes its appearance. Either song could make it by on retro charm, but its the songwriting and performance that ultimately takes centre stage.
With that said, you’d be doing Sacred Skin a disservice in completely dismissing the appeal of their distinctly nostalgic style. Having established those production and instrumentation choices as ornament rather than a crutch for weak material, the duo invoke them freely wherever appropriate. That means they can get away with throwing a shakuhachi a-la-Peter Gabriel on the intro to instrumental “Anathema” and dip into the butt-rock playbook on the closing solo of “Eyes Closed” without eliciting eye-rolls. That said, the style of songwriting also plays into the package, as the verse-chorus rock structures of “No Surprise” (to pick a song at random) are spiced up with emphasis on the pre-chorus and bridge sections in a manner common to radio-friendly crossover new wave – it’s a cut that wouldn’t structurally wouldn’t sound out of place on a The Fixx or Missing Persons LP.
We’ve become so inundated with homages to the eighties, not just within our own musical corner of the world but across the entirety of our culture that it can be hard to see the forest for the trees in a case like Sacred Skin. Thankfully the band acquit themselves ably across The Decline of Pleasure, never letting the easy sonic touchstones overshadow their considerable knack for writing a catchy tune. It’s a finely crafted record that doesn’t just justify the schtick, but elevates it from gimmick to sincerely executed stylistic choice. Recommended.