Don’t put your 501s and Doc Martens away just yet: the ‘90s revival rumbles on with the release of Blouse’s second album Imperium, leaving a trail of burnt-out effects pedals and Calvin Klein Eternity behind it. Imperium sees the Portland trio dropping the synths and drum machines of their self-titled 2011 debut and replacing them with live drums and tactile, effects-laden guitars. The result is a record of energetic, shoegaze-inflected, mildly gothic pop, the power-punk sugar hit of something like Elastica or Ash as seen through the distorted, sweetly sinister lens of Seventeen Seconds/Faith/Pornography-era The Cure.
Like Patricia Hall of Blouse’s Captured Tracks labelmates Soft Metals, frontwoman Charlie Hilton sings wistfully of love affairs and romantic obsessions with a voice that’s as smooth as glass and icily imperious, like having cold double cream poured into your ears. She’s coolly distant and unknowable beneath the thick swathes of reverberation: when she sings “I will love you for a thousand years” or “give me your body, I need a thing to hold”, there’s no vulnerability or emotion in that voice: it’s a statement of fact, a command, and you’d be a fool to ignore it.
The album begins riotously with its title track, a warm, pounding bassline anchoring the cold metal edges of heavily flanged guitar while Hilton asks, “Are you one of us?” in a way that’s both disinterested and something of a challenge, the implication being that you probably aren’t. It’s the kind of song that should rightfully make girls everywhere – or even middle-aged women – want to jump around the house and form a gang. The metallic guitars are an element Blouse return to again and again throughout Imperium, the dials all on the flangers and the phasers turned up to eleven until all sounds are twisted and alien, bringing to mind Luis Vasquez’s post-punk project The Soft Moon – another labelmate of Blouse’s (they knows what they likes and they likes what they knows, Captured Tracks). Without Jacob Portrait and Patrick Adams’ driven rhythm section, Imperium would be an utter mess, but there’s a strong pop structure and crisp rhythm to each song that stops the album from sounding like a floundering attempt at recreating Seventeen Seconds.
While the title track is undoubtedly the big shiny pop diamond of the album, it’s not exactly surrounded by a whole lot of rough. Hypnotic following track Eyesite has a blurry, out-of-focus feel about it, as though it’s being played on a slightly broken tape deck or heard from the other end of a long tunnel; Hilton’s multi-tracked, echoing vocals ricochet into one another to create an unaccompanied chasm of noise that then melts into the shoegazey music. In A Feeling Like This has a sultry Garbage-esque vibe, two steely guitar lines lazily stalking each other to create an intimate, night-time mood; mesmerising final track Trust Me traces its lineage back to something like the pared-down, low-key title track on Seventeen Seconds. Tracks like 1000 Years and Capote show that the band aren’t just a one-trick pony, the former a clear-eyed, jangly love song, the latter’s twanging guitars and expansive, dusty-sounding drums sounding almost Western.
Imperium isn’t perfect: there are some dragging moments – particularly on the garagey In A Glass and the faintly Madchester-tinged Happy Days – and some pretty awkward lyrical couplets going on (“I put my love in a glass, you had it all but you drank so fast”). But these are small details in an album that ably melds together ‘80s coldness and ‘90s warmth, and then brings it right up to date.