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Creep Show
Mr Dynamite Barnaby Smith , March 16th, 2018 17:16

John Grant and Wrangler get together and create a sinister, satisfying and whole lotta fun album.

There was a time when John Grant was known for a luscious style of folk-rock, back in his days with The Czars and on his first solo album, the Midlake-backed Queen of Denmark. But such has been his lurch toward the synth-based funk, on Pale Green Ghosts and especially Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, that if Mr Dynamite had been released as Grant’s fourth solo album it wouldn’t have been particularly surprising.

It’s not, of course: Creep Show is a collaboration between Grant and Wrangler, the experimental analogue electro three-piece made up of Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire, Tunng’s Phil Winter and Benge. And it seems like they are having an outrageous amount of fun.

The four of them share an encyclopaedic knowledge of the varying schools of electronic music since the 1970s, and a love of vintage synths. The dazzling breadth of styles on Mr Dynamite is testament to both these things, and to a peculiar and appealing strain of surreal humour - Grant is, after all, one of pop’s driest and most elastic wits.

The first two tracks, ‘Mr Dynamite’ and ‘Modern Parenting’, pulse with a malevolent intent, and the sharply minimalist synth sound inspired by video games. The dark mood is heightened by Grant’s theatrical delivery - his sonorous voice has a burr and resonance that evokes Orson Welles. With this in mind, his speak-singing on ‘Modern Parenting’, which begins with the charismatic line “Las Vegas and Atlantic City / Got together and they had a baby”, sees the singer delighting in producing something deliciously macabre. Mallinder’s less extravagant vocals play their part too, although Mr Dynamite does often feel like a vehicle for Grant to play and experiment with his increasing range of vocal personas.

By the final third of the record, the foursome have left the menacing electrofunk behind and loosened their grip a little. Tracks sprawl into a more expansive territory that bears the influence of early Kraftwerk. The absurdist humour and heavy irony has also relaxed into something more sincere. Closer ‘Safe And Sound’, for example, has a similar emotional impact to the Grant epic ‘Glacier’, with its allusions to signature loneliness, fear and self-doubt.

All of Mr Dynamite’s strengths converge on the noir gem that is ‘Endangered Species’. Grant croons along over drawn-out washes of synth that give way to a grimly hypnotic chorus and outro of harmonising backing vocals; in both texture and melody it feels like a direct homage to America Eats Its Young-era Funkadelic. It’s an example of the imaginative, studious and precise production decisions made by Winters and Benge, and it’s also noteworthy for including that rarest of things: the Grant falsetto.

Other noticeable touchstones include Pet Shop Boys, 808 State and LCD Soundsystem, while ‘Tokyo Underground’ has some of the complex fusions of that city’s Yellow Magic Orchestra – indeed YMO’s mish-mash of hip-hop, sugary pop and brazen electronic experimentation channels a similar spirit to this idiosyncratic quartet.

Mr Dynamite combines something genuinely sinister with a sense of fun, and far from being a whimsical side project for its members, it can be regarded as a landmark release for all of them.

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