You’d never guess it from their debut album Centres, but Cologne’s Urban Homes began life in 2008 as a largely instrumental, guitar-based post-punk band. Their metamorphosis into the ambient electronic outfit they are today was sparked off a couple of years back by the introduction of a drum machine, after the band’s original drummer “left the city for several months”. A 2011 demo tape shows the full extent of the band’s transformation: its icicle-sharp guitar licks, incisive, metallic drums and utterly stripped-down sensibility far removed from the warm glossiness of Centres.
Not that Urban Homes have absolutely abandoned their previous sound on their album: they’ve simply taken the more offbeat, interesting elements from it and magnified them. The bell-like synth sounds present in demo tracks like Lunar Walks have evolved into electro drones, repeating keyboard sequences and twitchy rave bleeps; the eclectic drum beats have become still more so in Centres’ tribal rhythms. The guitar, too, is still here, but where the band were once perhaps a little too keen on their flange pedal, automatically pushing the focus onto the guitar parts, it’s now a much more subtle presence – gently fizzing riffs melt into the background, the sharp edges sanded off but without losing any shape.
Urban Homes’ earlier style is most audible in Full Trance Effect, the fourth track on the album (and the penultimate one – the album comprises just five long songs, with album-closer Untitled Luv reaching eleven minutes). Spiky, jaunty guitar lines twine around and bounce off each other over a slow disco beat, the song’s layers building up and gathering momentum; during the course of the track, the band’s current more experimental, electronica-driven style gradually, almost imperceptibly takes over. It’s the band’s progression over the past couple of years compressed into six minutes.
It’s when Urban Homes truly throw themselves into their new approach, leaving behind their post-punk ambitions, that the best moments on the album result. Aurora is a case in point: seven glossy minutes of rhythmic, vaguely Eighties ambience that could almost appear on Roxy Music’s Avalon or Bryan Ferry’s Boys And Girls. Ice-cool, offbeat synths subtly blossom into being over a tropical beat and a warm, minimalist bassline, while vague falsetto vocals echo eerily through the mix like tribal chants in a dense forest. It’s subtly mesmerizing, and the undoubtedly the high point of the album.
It’s always going to be tempting, when dealing with a German electronica band who’ve made a 35-minute album out of five songs, to wheel out the Krautrock comparisons and dig around for Kraftwerk or Can influences that aren’t there. Sure, the endless repetition and general sense of understatement on Centres are similar to early Neu!, but it would be pretty reductive to label Urban Homes a sort of Krautrock-revival band on the basis of this and their nationality.
A more obvious touchstone is the house music of the ’90s, less intent on pulverising earlobes into meek submission than modern EDM and more on getting a crowd to actually dance. Central track Ayran Gifbek Mersi wears this influence most brazenly of all the songs on Centres, with its bubbling, syncopated synth stabs, crisp Ibiza disco beats and chanted Klaxons-esque group vocals that recede in and out of the mix.
In Centres, Urban Homes have crafted a record that somehow manages to be fresh and original while also sounding faintly familiar, like putting on a pair of favourite old shoes that’ve been resoled and polished up. Ambient but rarely uninteresting, nostalgic but inventive, Centres requires a bit of effort to get into but is infinitely rewarding from thereon in.