opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMAN
Since Toronto’s Robert Alfons makes blackhearted, mildly industrial synthpop as Trust, it makes sense that the project is regularly slapped with the label “coldwave,” lumped in with a “goth revival” that’s been going on for around six years now, and associated, in demeanor if not exactly genre, with “witch house.” Looking beyond the mere presence of minor-key synthesizers, though, there aren’t really that many connecting threads between Trust’s music and the boxes it’s often placed in. Trust has none of Cold Cave’s romanticism, Zola Jesus’s sense of compositional craft, or Light Asylum’s militant hostility; little of the icy flatness of the Soft Moon or the intense personal feeling of Austra (whose drummer Maya Postepski was once Alfons’s partner in the now-solo Trust). Trust lacks Chelsea Wolfe’s folk heritage or the interest in hip-hop flaunted by Salem and other witch house artists. There’s a case to made for an affinity between Trust and fellow Torontonians Crystal Castles, but Trust is both more refined than the psycho 8-bit collages of that duo’s early days and less refined than the gauzier sounds of their more recent work.
Mostly, Trust reminds me of yet another Toronto act, the Weeknd. It’s not a sonic link so much as an affinity in worldview: in the sinister narratives spun by both musicians, illicit substances are consumed, lascivious glances are exchanged, and much, much worse is left to the imagination. But there’s a reason that Abel Tesfaye was already a star by the time Alfons’s (and Postepski’s) 2012 debut TRST was slept-on, and it extends beyond the fact that Trust is signed to little ol’ Arts & Crafts or that the Weeknd cross-bred golden-age R&B and hip-hop with cutting-edge underground instincts in a hyper-marketable way while Trust was playing around with drum patterns and synth sounds that have existed for eons in pop-cultural time. The distinction is more than generic: simply put, the Weeknd make drugged-out music, using lush, luxuriant vibes to mask a decadent reality, while Trust makes drug-sick music. Tesfaye’s vision of Toronto nightlife is, weirdly, a kind of daydream, a lifestyle that doesn’t really play out according to the sensuous script. Alfons, meanwhile, captured the actual bleakness of living one’s life Tesfaye-style: out of the sunlight in grungy, airless, overcrowded spaces, pursuing pleasure single-mindedly with wildly fluctuating internal chemical levels altering judgment and perception alike. House Of Balloons was, impossibly, sexy even when it was horrifying; TRST sounded the way coming down from a cheap high in the middle of a really seedy situation feels. That is, actually horrifying.
Or, to put it another way, Tesfaye has the voice of a dark angel, the haunting/haunted R&B crooner we like to think we deserve, while Alfons has the voice of a castrated bullfrog. His is a pinched, nasal croak that occasionally makes an effort to hit pitch but mostly settles for monotone. Whether it’s affected or all Alfons has got going for him, it’s the single most brilliant thing about Trust, and on TRST his voice’s inherent lewd ugliness determined the overall aesthetic. Cold Cave or Light Asylum, those bands are dark, but Trust? Trust is dirty. Trust is slimy. Trust doesn’t beg for sympathy; there’s none of the cloying emotion-baiting found in the Weeknd’s work. Instead, it’s stone-cold evil, matching its closest sonic equivalent, Matthew Dear’s similarly grubby nightlife-as-nightmare opus Black City, lurch-for-lurch and then some. All of which is to say that if the debut lacked a certain wow factor, Trust was nevertheless one of the most unique entries in the so-called goth revival. It was boldly committed to an aesthetic that was, frankly, nasty, so it’s not surprising that TRST didn’t catch on, but it was a record that deserved more attention and admiration than it received.
Follow-up Joyland puts Alfons’s wonderfully creepy vocals front-and-center, which should mean that the new album burrows even deeper into the hellhole that TRST slithered out of. But instead, Alfons is yet another victim of one of the most common strains of sophomore slump, the dreaded ”bigger is better” fallacy. Joyland takes the house - and trance- indebted elements of TRST at its most danceable and blows them up from basement to stadium size. This is a big plus in that it allows the weirdly charismatic Alfons to vamp it up (anyone lucky enough to catch Trust live knows this guy can milk the frontman role like no other), but mostly it means that Joyland sounds cleaner, clearer, and more conservative than feels right for this artist. While there’s nothing wrong per se with songs like the Anne Carson-referencing “Geryon” or “Peer Pressure,” it’s questionable whether they’re a good fit for Trust instead of, well, any other gloomy synthpop act out there (“Capitol” in particular feels like watered-down Crystal Castles). As he’s already proven, Alfons has better things to be doing with his talents than making merely serviceable club music for the Hot Topic set. I’m all for scrubbing away the murk clouding Trust’s older recordings, but I’m against it if it means also losing the murk at the heart of the project’s very songwriting. There's no meaningful relationship between these numbing bangers and the vocals at their core. Joyland settles for doing things the usual way despite the fact that we know this artist can be possessed of a much more off-kilter vision.
That vision can often be heard lurking just outside or on the edges of these new tracks. For example, although the refrain of “Lost Souls” is a depressingly standard Top 40 EDM bounce, its eerie vocal melody begs for a better foundation; when the song segues into the bleary piano outro “Eelings,” that better foundation almost materializes. Yet by and large the most creative thing about Joyland is Alfons’s singing. TRST was consistently more interesting musically, from the ever-shifting structure of “Shoom” to the gleefully odd duet “This Ready Flesh” to the bracing, feedback-shrouded “Sulk”; its signature dancefloor-igniting cut, “Bulbform,” has more life in any given ten-second stretch than anything here.
But here’s the upside: when Joyland gets things right, it’s seriously awesome. It’s worth hearing just for its sick-and-twisted centerpiece “Four Gut” and the gorgeous, melancholy closer “Barely,” which is probably Trust’s best and catchiest release to date – I’d even go so far as to call it heartbreaking, not a word I ever expected to associate with Trust. Alas, these songs stand head and shoulders above the rest of Joyland, a record that’s all too often content with mediocrity even though its finest moments reveal just how close it came to greatness. C+