Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Altar Eagle - Nightrunners

Altar Eagle is Brad Rose (who somehow finds the time for at least a half-dozen musical projects in addition to running the excellent Digitalis label) and Eden Hemming Rose, a husband-and-wife duo out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because Brad is best known for his work as The North Sea and with Ajilvsga, an unwary listener might sit down with an Altar Eagle album (in addition to this new one, there's also 2010's excellent "Mechanical Gardens" and a handful of cassette releases as well) prepared for nightmare dronescapes. They would be shocked then to find themselves instead listening to blissful electro-pop. Of course, this pop music is quite a bit scuzzier and more washed out than the pristine production you might find on, say, that new Purity Ring record, or the ultra-chilled sounds on the Digitalis-released "Ro Me Ro" by Paco Sala (another stellar album from this year). Industrial clatter and bitcrushed scree distort and warp these glistening pop gems, almost like someone rubbed a bunch of gravel over some long-lost Cocteau Twins LP. The husband-wife duo draws from a deep reservoir of influences here: The bass line on "Carousel Ocean" is a dub-y groove, "Digital Gold Futures" is as texturally dense as the best shoegaze, "Runaways" sounds like an ultra-cool Dark Wave classic, "No Spring Till Summer" is funky as hell, with lushly layered vocals and even some shades of New Wave, "Hologram" has an almost club friendly beat, albeit one that's deeply offset by vocodered vocals, and mangled production. It's hard to pick the standout tracks, because they're simply all so good.

"Nightrunners" is constantly surprising. Anchored more than ever by Eden's just-washed-out vocals and featuring more addictive hooks and woozily cathartic bursts than ever before, it's catchy, even danceable at times. Still, there's so much fantastic production work going on that it almost feels like time with the album is better spent picking up the nuances. In any case, the result is a gorgeous, haze-blasted piece of electro-pop. In a music scene glutted with sterilized, derivative synth-pop, it's an absolute relief when an album comes along that plays with conventions and reconfigures them in exciting ways like this one does. Maybe Brad Rose's hellish industrial soundscapes aren't too far removed after all. More than any album I've heard in recent memory, "Nightrunners" proves that there can be common ground between noise purists and indie-pop diehards. It's easily one of the best records of the year so far.

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