Review: Fuck Buttons – ‘Slow Focus’

FUCK BUTTONS SLOW FOCUS
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opinion by DREW MALMUTH

With the release of Slow Focus, Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power have once again demonstrated that the least interesting aspect of their group is the fact that it is called Fuck Buttons. One would think that a band name that combines “fuck” and “buttons” would overshadow the career of whatever drug-addled rave fanatic concocted that band title. But these two friendly gentleman from Bristol happened to choose a ridiculous name, because they never assumed they’d have to explain it, and go on to make some of the more exciting, fiercely original electronic music of the last five years. Their first two albums (Street Horrsing in 2008 and Tarot Sport in 2009) shared immediately identifiable qualities – deep, pounding rhythms; synths oscillating between uncomfortable drones and hopeful soundscapes; noises that seemed born from an uncharted abyss – but there was also a sense of growth and momentum that portended an unpredictable string of future releases. Slow Focus takes that sense of anticipation and funnels it into a fifty-minute onslaught of surprising, blistering music.

Having had their music chosen to soundtrack the Olympics’ opening ceremony, one would have forgiven the group had they played up the triumphant nature of their sound and made a bid for commercial success. But Slow Focus is a dark and snarling album. It is still laced with the soaring synth arrangements that formed the crux of songs like “Olympians”; but there is a deep feeling of unease that underlies the shimmering surface layers. Even more noticeable, the group has experimented with their song structures. The Fuck Buttons aesthetic is usually described as a rising chorus of noise that culminates in explosive, grinding synth washes. This linear format is tweaked for Slow Focus, as rhythms dip in and out of the track and the duo force themselves to build climaxes in ways more convoluted than simply building from calm to chaos. These stylistic shifts (which may stem from the lack of an outside producer) make the album more successful in terms of its ability to explore contrast. Where earlier songs would eschew abrasive tones as the song became more expansive, tracks on Slow Focus can nimbly combine the conflicting sounds that the duo are drawn to. The album is not as fun or immediately satisfying as Tarot Sport; but it is an awe-inspiring listening experience that represents a bold step forward for the group.

Like their band name, Fuck Buttons’ song titles only represent a dominant facet of something more complex. “Brainfreeze” is indeed tinged with sinister piano lines; but it ultimately evokes something more expansive and enjoyable than those debilitating punishments for inhaling icy treats. It is the first indication of the albums dystopian bent – the drums and background synths often sound metallic and obscured, like they are being listened to through a storm drain. The unsettling outro blends into “Year of the Dog,” which represents the approach Daft Punk should have taken when scoring TRON. The squirming electronic spurts give way to a swirl of dissonant screeches, all backed by a cascading melody and a sporadic, imposing bass line. Not a particularly inventive track, but engrossing and affecting nonetheless. And just as it seems that the album will flow gracefully from track to track, “The Red Wing” introduces hip-hop rhythms, wayward saxophone lines, and a general abandon for whatever people think electronic music should sound like.

The second half of “The Red Wing” embraces the cataclysmic sound that Fuck Buttons’ arrangements generally build toward. It feels like a melodic peak has been reached but then a swath of distorted sound opens a section that is as serene as it is abrasive. It’s akin to the finale of a firework show being interrupted by an atomic bomb. This is the group’s unique quality: the ability to create futuristic mind-journeys within rhythms that are primal and fundamentally human. Some argue that this transcendent effect is caused by loudness more so than the quality of the songwriting. But even on low volumes, songs like “Stalker” show an acute understanding of how to use repetition to build tension, how to create layers that make the song feel heavier with each additional synth. These are not spacious arrangements that tease the ear; they are slabs of frequencies that move ominously forward. “Stalker” weighs down on the listener slowly over the course of ten minutes. By the end, there are still independent synth lines that poke out of the melody, but most of the track is wrapped up in a wall of beauty and restless energy. “Hidden Xs” takes a similar approach, rounding out the album with a slightly more hopeful tone (and a vicious hip-hop beat) but ultimately reinforcing the dreary sense of uncertainty that pervades Slow Focus.

This is not a happy album. And while not all listeners will find solace in its depressive tones, it is difficult to not appreciate its expansive sound palette and unflinching creativity. The duo wanted to explore something darker, saying that the album is meant to mimic “the period of time that your eyes take” after waking up to readjust to “your surroundings and you realize that you’re somewhere that maybe you don’t recognize or it’s an unwelcoming place.” It is by no means comfortable, but it results in an album that is experienced rather than simply listened to. [A-]

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