Portland-by-way-of-Los-Angeles electro duo Soft Metals, aka Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks, suit their name down to the ground. Their music, occupying a space somewhere in between alternative synthpop and ambient house music, is gloopy and shiny like melted silver or beads of mercury; it’s difficult to grasp, poisonous despite its appealing polish.
On their second album Lenses the band push their sound to dreamier and more sinister extremes than on their self-titled debut, released in 2011 but bearing the glossy fingerprints of the 1980s all over it. Lenses sees Soft Metals largely eschewing the floorshaking, somehow rigid-seeming drum machine beats favoured by the likes of ’80s mainstays New Order, and creating something more elastic and house-y.
Lenses bubbles and ripples into being with the title track, its sound ambient but relentlessly busy at the same time. It’s a gentle starting point for the album, Hall’s angelic, off-kilter vocals floating high above glittering waves of rippling synths. Hall’s voice is wonderfully ethereal throughout Lenses, her drawn-out, echoing syllables combining the haunting, unhurried quality of ’80s jazz-pop singers such as Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn and Carmel’s Carmel McCourt with the cold, almost childlike sweetness of someone like My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher. She and Hicks are at their best on Tell Me, Hall’s voice contrasting beautifully with the perky, almost video-game-esque bleeps of the music, intermittently swallowed up by thunderous swells of snarling synths.
If there’s one thing Soft Metals is like, it’s taking two opposing musical textures and slamming them up against each other, whether that be Hall’s vaporous voice and a growling synth hook, or an airy swirl of bell-like noise with a fat, clipped synthline pitched so low your ears can barely detect it. No Turning Back weaves jittery, fizzing synth-twitches into and around a plodding, sinister three-chord sequence; on Hourglass, those video-game bleeps are out in force again, pogoing all over layers and layers of cavernous electro melodies. Soft Metals utilise all of those futuristically-spacey but somehow retro-sounding tones you found in the upper reaches of your keyboard’s tone dial when you were supposed to be practising your Grade 3 piano pieces, but the album never sounds like the gleeful experimental noodlings of a bored 14-year-old who’s sick of hammering out the Bach – it’s cleverly and thoughtfully done.
If there’s one criticism of Lenses it’s that it often lacks the punchiness of their debut – as an album there’s something insubstantial about it, something distant and transient. Its eight songs build and build without seeming to really reach any climaxes of the kind that provoke an emotional reaction in the listener. Final track Interobserver is a prime example: nearly eight minutes long, the early promise of its unsettling, minimalist melody never really goes anywhere, despite having more than enough space and time to develop. When Hall sings ‘we all die’ over and over in When I Look Into Your Eyes, her words wash over you, stripped of their darkness by the hypnotic call and response synthlines and clicking drum machines. It’s not Soft Metals looking into our eyes, as the song title suggests, but we who are held in Soft Metals’ mesmerising musical gaze, an enveloping blank stare that insulates us from any kind of real emotional response.
Ultimately, Lenses is a masterly album and Soft Metals’ brand of inventive, ghostly electro is a welcome break from the flood of brainless EDM that’s cluttering up airwaves and dancefloors everywhere at the moment. But there is an emptiness at the heart of their music which makes it seem somehow flimsy, an interesting façade with little behind it – and that won’t appeal to everybody.