Review: Johnny Jewel – After Dark 2

After-Dark-2
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by JEAN-LUC MARSH

Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better label album After Dark 2 has been a long time coming. In the literal sense, it took six years for the fifteen songs to emerge, develop, and consolidate into one uniformly refined anthology, but in the metaphorical sense, it also took a renaissance in electronic music. In the years since the original After Dark, the tectonic plates of music have shifted away from dubstep and all of its grimy excessiveness, towards an era in which polished, sleek electro in once again in vogue. Chromatics became emblematic of this trend, rising to meteoric heights last year with their dreamlike tour de force, Kill For Love.

In that respect, Johnny Jewel had incredible foresight; biding his time and crafting an opus while the rest of the world swayed mindlessly, seeking the instant and ephemeral satisfaction of booming bass and dizzying drops. After Dark 2 is the antithesis of dubstep. There are no drops. A majority of the songs exceed five minutes, and instant gratification is rare. Jewel elected to follow the patient route, forcing us to take the journey along with him in order to fully experience every brilliant nook and cranny of his nocturnal masterpiece.

“Warm In the Winter” by label heavyweight Glass Candy – serves as a glittering overture, an invitation to venture deeper into Jewel’s glamorous noir universe. Over an array of sparkling synthesizers, vocalist Ida No begins a conversation of encouragement aimed at the listener explaining that “If you ever should look in the mirror and wonder who it is that you are, and wonder what it is that you came for… Well, I know the answer. You’re beautiful. You came from heaven.” She grows rapturous, shouting “I love you! … We love you!” as the synths climb skyward, entering an astral plane and endowing the song with an iridescent, uplifting radiance. It is a dazzling, stirring introduction, incongruous with the other fourteen tracks in tone, but on par in terms of craftsmanship and quality.

Beginning with the minimalist instrumentation and modest vocals of Desires’ “Tears from Heaven,” the remainder of After Dark 2 eschews warmth for an edgier, dusky ambiance created by an assortment of vocoders, bells, and omnipresent synthesizers. The value of such instrumentation in crafting this specific mood is emphasized on wordless tracks from Symmetry and Mike Simonetti which surge with an underlying menace while maintaining their composure.

Unsurprisingly, Glass Candy and Chromatics, the two titans of Italians Do It Better, dominate the album, providing nearly half the content and consistently delivering performances that flourish within the narrow confines of Italo-disco. Across the entire compilation, the raw materials to create bombastic anthems of the night are readily available, yet all parties involved opt for a more disciplined approach, never breaking the barrier that could so easily be shattered. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Chromatics’ “Camera” in which the perfect storm of a solid beat, distorted vocals, and chiming bells is present, yet Ruth Radelet remains distant and restrained, electing the path of elegance over sonic opulence.

Despite the huge presence of more established acts, it is label newcomers Appaloosa, who enchant on the closing third of the album with the exquisite “Intimate.” Singing in the midst of an artificial life cycle in which beaming synthesizers build, bloom, and die, Anne-Laure Keib contemplates the insignificance of love in context with the grandness of the cosmos. In a lilting French accent she pines “I was your soul mate,” seemingly stopping space and time to confess her vulnerabilities.

For all of its nocturnal leanings, After Dark 2 avoids an oppressive darkness that haunts other works dealing with similar motifs. The balance of synth-driven buoyancy and emotional distance, in adherence with Jewel’s meticulous attention to detail, allows the compilation to evade the fate of becoming a requiem. Whereas the original After Dark was a glimpse into the mind of Johnny Jewel and a preview of what was to emerge from his fledgling Italians Do It Better label, After Dark 2 is a confirmation of his prowess and vision. It is proof and testament that the reignited flame of Italo-disco can endure through the tempests of shifting tastes. [A-]

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