German electro-industrial project 2nd Face’s sophomore LP utOpium picks up from their 2017 debut album Nemesis, with sole member Vincent Uhlig showing some considerable growth as both a producer and as a vocalist. It’s a record that finds Uhlig building out his vast tracks with more complex and layered arrangements and sound design, almost to exclusion of all other concerns. He takes some big swings in terms of scope, and while it doesn’t hit 100% of the time, it does demonstrate some forward thinking ideas.
utOpium‘s best moments are those when Uhlig’s sprawling constructions strike a balance between tunefulness and ornate production. Cuts like “Formula Extinction” don’t put the hook out in front, choosing instead to weave it through different synth patterns, vocal lines and the broader structure of the song; that number in particular sneakily gets its chord progression across via organs, pianos, buzzing basses and Uhlig’s own voice, so by the time a ghostly suite of synth strings picks it up it’s already been subliminally absorbed by the listener. It’s not a traditional verse-chorus kind of record, instead choosing to build each song around movements and ever-changing orchestration, rarely settling in one spot long enough to lose momentum. Songs like “1 of the Others” and “Life(l)over” cram a considerable number of sections together, slotting chiming keys, fuzzed out percussion, basses and samples together without any jarring shifts. It’s quite impressive as a feat of planning and composition, meticulous in a way that recalls some of European industrial’s contemporary masters like the much-missed Interlace.
The problem with the approach is that it’s difficult to latch onto any given song as an individual piece. Even after taking in the record several times, its hard to remember which part belongs to each song; you’ll recognize a particular lyric, bit of programming or snatch of instrumentation, but situating them mentally proves challenging. That’s not necessarily a downside when listening to the album as a whole – indeed, it lends the LP a sort of classic concept-record/rock opera quality where its whole is more than the sum of its parts. But it does mean that Uhlman leaves a lot on the table by constantly shifting between sounds and ideas: “Underneath the Silence” has something like three or four different sections that could have been built out and expanded into whole numbers. Instead they’re heard once and then they’re gone, and you may find yourself wishing for that particular vocal hook or rounded bit of bass synth to make a comeback.
That restlessness and need to keep moving forward with new ideas across each track is tempered somewhat by Uhlig’s own presence. While not the most impressive singer, he knows how to use his own voice and how to produce it to different effect. Sometimes half-singing, intoning solemnly with added pitch-shifting and distortion, or just plain punching through the mix when needed, he brings a unity to the LP that might otherwise have seemed like an assembly of ideas and segments without intention. It’s an important part of a record whose shortcomings don’t come from lack of ambition, but from a disinterest in focusing in on any one of its myriad components. What it lacks in traditional songcraft, utOpium makes up for in grandiosity of effort and in extensive detail.