Death In Vegas
, September 28th, 2011 11:15
Death in Vegas are a complex proposition. Richard Fearless often seems to want to make records for nightclubs attended solely by elegantly wrecked devotees of an eclectic range of critically-approved music: deaths-head garage and drone, post-punk, Detroit techno, psychedelia, and the affectless modernism of 70s Dusseldorf and Berlin. However, his work has arguably found its widest audience by supplying the token-electronic filler for beery indie discos and car compilations with titles like One For The Lads and Cigarettes and Alcohol Classics.
One explanation for this may be that DIV are generally at their best when they sound like they're expanding the remit their refined aspirations permit them by, well, having a laugh. Fearless' reference points are exquisite, but his music improves when it's unburdened of the anxious need to demonstrate good taste. A case in point is 'Aisha', the Iggy Pop-fronted stomper from second album The Contino Sessions, which marries a killer's confession to a riff and beat not unlike The Glitter Band. It maintained the Velvetsy nihilism of the rest of the work, but lent it an oddly pop-friendly spin which suggested that you needn't have attended art school to appreciate it.
Something similar occurred on the following album, Scorpio Rising. Its eponymous title track, a Status Quo-sampling tribute to avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger's short, succeeded by putting a deeply ambiguous sexual address into the mouth of none other than the stridently anti-intellectual, relentlessly macho Liam Gallagher. It at once subverted both Gallagher's blokish image and the preciousness of an art scene generally impervious to the charms of boys in Stone Island. By contrast, 'Hands Around My Throat', which drafted in Adult.'s Nicola Kuperus in an attempt to import some of the masochistic sleaze that was de rigeur eight or nine years ago, came across as unintentionally silly, as one might expect of a track featuring sampled whip noises without a hint of irony or calculated camp.
Since 2004 and the last DIV studio album, join-the-dots krautrock homage Satan's Circus, Fearless has been flitting between opposing corners of his aesthetic identity. Along with long-time collaborator Tim Holmes, he embarked on a never-to-be-finished production job for Oasis; a little later, he moved to Brooklyn to study film and photography, where he featured in art-rockers Black Acid. Now, he seems to have emigrated permanently to the hemisphere of connoisseurship. Named in honour of the MC5-and White Panther-linked arts collective from late-60s Detroit, Trans-Love Energies is an unabashed appeal to the vinyl nerds and drug casualties of Fearless' fantasy nightclub: nothing on it is open to the possibility of appropriation by One For The Lads II.
Normally, you'd be inclined to praise a group for maintaining aesthetic, rather than crowd-pleasing, commitments, but DIV's efforts to be a 'proper' boundary-pushing act all too often see them struggle to build on others' innovations. More so than any other album on Fearless' CV, Trans-Love Energies is paralysed by the anxiety of influence. Simon Reynolds talks about how the Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, and Spacemen 3 produced 'record collection rock', music which served almost purely as an iconostasis for the groundbreakers of the past, from the mid-80s onwards; the fact that DIV are manifestly inspired by all three of those bands puts them at an extra remove from the origins of the sounds they produce. Opener 'Silver Time Machine', for example, makes like Spiritualized making like Steve Reich, an impression later reinforced by a phase-heavy instrumental with the batteringly unambiguous title 'Drone Reich'.
Readers tend to get frustrated when reviewers describe tracks using formulas in the vein of 'like x meets y (on z)', but DIV don't leave their critics a great range of tools if simile is disregarded. 'Your Loft My Acid' moves to a beat which thinks it's Basic Channel but is closer to Bentley Rhythm Ace; 'Witch Dance', featuring an admittedly intriguing vocal from Austra's Katie Stelmanis, appears to have noticed in the Guardian that reinterpreting This Mortal Coil over slowed-down electro is the thing to do this year. None of this is to say that Trans-Love Energies is totally unenjoyable – half of it is effectively-realised dancefloor fodder – but it's the logical conclusion of Fearless' reverential attitude rather than an endeavour to push things forward.
At its best, the album triumphs in volume and viscerality rather than inventiveness. Second song 'Black Hole' pulls off the same trick as Primal Scream's 'Accelerator' by mapping massively distorted guitars onto a motorik beat, while 'COUM' – presumably named for Genesis P-Orridge's performance art gang – is a reasonably engaging exercise in detuned synth and pounded percussion. If you were completely unfamiliar with the references, you might think that something pioneering had been accomplished.
The debate about whether or not popular music's modernist phase has ended has intensified recently, particularly since Reynolds published Retromania a few months ago. DIV's latest album might well be cited as evidence by those in favour of such a motion, but that would be to sidestep the fact that they are capable of being subtly challenging when they produce material which brings together disparate constituencies of listeners. It might sound counterintuitive, but they're at their most unboundedly adventurous when they speak to an audience which is, in theory, more conservative. As it stands, Trans-Love Energies is too archival, a record devoted to celebrating and cataloguing the radicalism of its ancestors while demonstrating little of its own.