Album Reviews

Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport

(ATP) UK release date: 5 October 2009


British experimental / noise duo Fuck Buttons’ first album, Street Horrrsing, appeared last year on ATP Recordings, to a whole heap of critical acclaim. Not much more than 18 months later, they now present its follow up for which, it would be fair to say, the phrase “eagerly awaited” is very much applicable. Have they reneged on their wealth of early promise, or instead consolidated their position as one of the UK’s most exciting, original and invigorating young bands?

Resoundingly, the reply would have to be the latter. This is, from the off, a glorious piece of work. Lead single and opening track Surf Solar twinkles, with squiggles and glimmers of brittle yet sparkling synth sounds, interspersed with extracts that simply soar, all this serving as the prelude to the moment when the bass line thuds, the main melodic riff appears and repeats – like wordless singing (a trick also repeated in the “hu… hu… ho… ho…” sounds later, on Phantom Limb).

In common with many of the (seven) tracks here (see also: The Lisbon Maru, Olympians and Phantom Limb in particular) the melody, intensity, rhythm and musical themes are given the space and the time to build as the piece progresses. Layers of synths, glitches, beats and other curious uncategorisable sounds tend to emerge in an unhurried way until, almost before you realise it, something which started out as calm and near-sedate is now richly euphoric.

But if you deconstruct this energy and exhilaration, it’s surprising to realise that very little of it can be attributed to the kind of fast pace and rhythm that would normally lend more conventional “dance” music these qualities. The most upbeat and life-enhancing tracks on the album are, counter-intuitively, actually those whose pace could almost be described as sedate or stately, with a medium tempo and a sense of calm.

The melodies too seem strangely simple, often riffing on as little as three notes in a major key (Flight Of The Feathered Serpent) although they are invariably, undeniably beautiful – from the trebly, good-times tune in The Lisbon Maru to Olympians’ high pitched twinkling, which manages to be moving and happy-yet-sad at the same time.

A technique used on a couple of occasions, to great effect, is to suddenly and quite dramatically strip this layering back down again, having slowly built it up. The times when this happens in both Rough Steez and Olympians are among the best moments on the whole album and give a sudden added emphasis to key pieces of melody, adding a refreshing clarity and sense of simplicity, yet also drama, all at once.

This trick is reversed, to almost equal effect, by the sometimes sudden insertion of an extra layer, melody or synth line, lifting a track that one hadn’t thought needed lifting, onto a whole new plane. Surf Solar, The Lisbon Maru and – again – Olympians all do this; and at its best the device is like the sudden emergence of blazing sunlight on a previously cloudy day.

Counteracting and offsetting all these happy highs are some darker, more menacing moments. These, interestingly, are all found on the faster, thus superficially more “danceable” tracks, such as Rough Steez, with its mechanical-sounding noises, like a weird kind of synthesized clockwork engine, or Phantom Limb’s darker, harsher beats, glitches and rhythms.

Only Space Mountain feels slightly less than a fully-realised success. The volume and layers of sound build as the track progresses, yet somehow the emotional engagement doesn’t, to anything like the same extent as elsewhere on the album. Something of the joyous “step up” in mood and degree that one waits for just fails to arrive.

From their wilfully unquotable name, to the oblique yet evocative album and track titles (Surf Solar, Olympians, Space Mountain and Flight Of The Feathered Serpent being particularly indirect yet appropriate to the content that they are named after), and in the distinctive artwork that accompanies their releases also, there is something self-contained, a little mysterious and indefinable about Fuck Buttons. Much as their sound is far easier to enjoy and appreciate than it is to analyse, so the band themselves seem intriguingly “other”.

This can only add to their appeal, but ultimately such things are peripheral. Where it really matters, really really matters, is in the music. And such are the music’s joyous highs, subtle thrills and rich and deep layers, they can undoubtedly be judged one of the most worthwhile and special bands currently at large.


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