They may sound like a firm of German solicitors, but Brandt Brauer Frick are instead a group of avant garde musicians from Berlin, one steeped in the city’s reputation as being home to the progressive and forward thinking. What makes them stand out, however, has been their single-minded mining for a new form of experimental techno, rejecting technology to embrace classical forms. Their previous LP, 2011’s Mr Machine, saw the trio record live, limiting themselves in using a group of just 10 classical musicians and working with them to explore the concept of dance music.
Fairly hard-line then, in terms of their operation. Yet, lest they be labelled stuffed shirts, Miami is billed as an attempt to relax a little; classical strictures thrown off and electronics allowed on board. Its titular theme also suggests a sort of warm conviviality rendered in landscape – sweeping beaches, arching blue skies, warm climes. A real holiday for those so preoccupied with the abstract and theoretical, Paul Frick also says that the group “…wanted to write songs rather than tracks that slowly evolve”.
Sound sentiments, but it could equally have been deadpan German humour, as opener Miami Theme is a far from sunny affair, steadfastly conjuring eminent gloom over its ten minutes-plus running time, which makes it feel more like a prelude still firmly in the classical tradition. Insistent, rising piano chords usher in a tactile piece full of rumbling, submarine brass and whispers of strings which frame a smoky vocal from Erika Janunger. It rolls and swells like the ocean, bristling and restless, and is both calming yet portentous in the suggested power that is merely glimpsed. In terms of underscoring their established working methods, it’s engaging and impressive. With relation to the title’s holiday imagery, it’s an agreement to go away made while secretly praying for the flights to be cancelled.
Yet things acclimatise, and a healthier balance is often struck between the classical and the electronic over the course of the record. Ocean Drive (Schamane) lollops along colliding seemingly spontaneously triggered piano samples, often wonky and sometimes with outright arrhythmia, before settling into an audacious groove. It both mangles and invigorates the classics, sounding like Four Tet meeting chamber music. Skiffle It Up also has an 8-bit clonk of a sample, fizzing electronic noises and all manner of mechanical hiccups, dub-esque bass and skronky piano, accidentally reminiscent of Brooklyn’s Yeasayer.
And accidental it must be, as BFF seem uniquely, wilfully insular – a band (and they’re labelled that with hesitation) would have to be to shoulder their preoccupations and bear them out with any real verve and purpose. Maybe isolation is their strength as, unfortunately, the record often summons missteps despite, or maybe due to, the injection of a host of supporting cast members. They might often be impressive ones too – including Om’Mas Keith (producer for Frank Ocean and Kanye West), Nina Kraviz and Jamie Lidell, who crops up twice – but they can’t wring a real level of engagement from the material. Lidell especially struggles with his contributions to (fittingly) Empty Words and Broken Pieces, where he largely repeats (or is sampled) “Everywhere you look / nothing left but broken pieces everywhere”, despite the elastic nature of his soulful vocals. It’s as if guest and group leave things to each other and, with there often no real lyrical commitment, there’s no trail of conscious, collaborative songwriting effort.
Miami often then reverts to type, concentrating on the cerebral ruminations on the nature of rhythm and exploring its many guises through differing combinations of instrumentation, percussion and textures; a distillation of the notion of dance using fewer classical elements than before. There is, of course, no shame in that, and as dark and sometimes unhinged mood pieces, or edgier theoretical ones – being as much about what they choose to do as what they actually do – they are frequently interesting. In songwriting terms however, they’re little more than empty gestures – Miami frustrates and falls well short in terms of capturing hearts as readily as it will minds.