How artists can change entirely, embrace a whole new body, as it were, has never ceased to be a fascination to me.
The latest example of this is the work of Rexx Arkana, long a fixture of the industrial scene in the United States. Previously he has been – aside from his DJing and also music journalism – best known for his work in two projects.
But Listen: 151: Coldkill
Distance By Design
Storming The Base
FGFC820 are one of them. They are a band I never got in to, really – pounding industrial music that like many of their peers come across now as – unfairly or no – a bit shallow, devoid of emotional depth and instead music to dance to, to forget to, to pump your fists to.
The other work, though, is far more relevant to what I’m about to talk about here. Bruderschaft was a collective project begun by Arkana, in the wake of his father’s death from cancer, and was conceived as a fundraiser for charity. Various members of other bands mucked in and helped out, and the skyscraping single Forever was eventually followed rather later by an album.
In a sad twist, Arkana then found himself fighting cancer over the last couple of years (which I believe he’s now well on the road to recovery from, happily), but that fight has remarkably not put him off continuing with various musical endeavours – including the return of FGFC820 this autumn at DB21, an enthralling, lengthy interview with rising stars Empathy Test for I Die: You Die (an interview so good that I ditched my own plans to talk to the band – just read this instead)…and Coldkill.
I first heard Coldkill early last year, when I got sent one of the early singles (I’m Yours, featured on 254: Tracks (Mar 2016)), which immediately had me taking notice. A collaborative project with Eric Eldredge (Interface, another band I’ve covered in these pages before), it was a clear hark back to a couple of eras of industrial and synthpop.
Arkana has noted in an interview with ReGen about his intention to delve into his interest in the minimal synth work of the eighties, and sure enough this album has a minimalism about it that takes us back to the edgy experimentalism of that time, where bands using synthesisers were still trying to work out where to take their technology, and it quickly became clear to many that less was more. But as well as that, it also nods back to about fifteen years ago, where “futurepop” was nearing the end as the “boom” thing in industrial, and Covenant pretty much put an end to the movement with the glorious Northern Light, an album so good that no-one was going to top it.
The work of Covenant around that time – where an album of deep introspection perversely resulted in their most open-minded, sweeping crowd pleasers of all and their greatest work by far – is very much an important reference to this album thematically, too. Or, at least it sounds that way to me.
So what, you might say, that yet another band is harking back to the past. Everyone does that, right?
Well, yes and no.
To my mind there are two ways that this is done. There are those that are straight-up hero worship, where there is little personality other than the sound of what they are referring back to. Then there are those that are taking inspiration from others, and putting their own spin on it.
This album is very much one in the latter camp. It is at its best when Rexx Arkana’s vocals embody a cool, icy restraint, particularly on the tracks we’ve already heard (In Here and I’m Yours). The former is a work of glorious simplicity, a pulsing beat, a few synth hooks and Arkana’s vocals delivered warts and all (no treatments to them at all), which gives off a feeling of intense vulnerability and has a killer chorus, too. I’m Yours takes a bit longer to build a head of steam, but by the chorus (and some seriously retro synth lines) the momentum is unstoppable and six minutes of it flash past.
Elsewhere there are moments of intrigue, too. Black or White sees Arkana explore his vocal range a bit, letting loose a bit in a song apparently borne of frustration and communication issues, and there is a distinct nagging feeling that I’ve heard those synths somewhere before. The title track that follows is a slower, near-ballad, with Arkana’s vocals sounding as world-weary as the song, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Even better is the later Leave It All Behind, a bass-heavy, slow-jam of a song that is entering trip-hop territory, with an oppressive, dark atmosphere that is dripping with malice and spite.
To a point, this isn’t really an album of dancefloor bangers (something Arkana has been a dab hand at in the past), but the hook-led charge of Memories is one exception, but retains the otherwise downbeat air of the album – despite the inclusion of an amazing and lengthy 90s-house influenced breakdown, that would make the basis of an great remix, too, I’m sure. Systematic takes us back further, to 80s-electro, particularly in that drum pattern, but the lush synths and Arkana’s cool vocals bring it more up to the now.
The album closes out with Fables – a song that starts out as another torch-ballad, before bursting into life with sweeping chorus that also sees the only harsh vocals on the entire album, albeit tucked away as backing vocals in the latter part of the song.
I don’t usually cover remixes tacked onto the end of albums, but the two here are actually worth mentioning. Assemblage23 give In Here the full Pimp My Ride treatment, giving it a shiny new rhythm section and an almighty flourish for the chorus to leave it with a very different feel, while Covenant strip down I’m Yours even further, leaving it as a stark, lengthy dancefloor-aimed workout, which is no bad thing.
There is an additional track, too, which initially seems rather odd to have it after the remixes tacked onto the end. But when you hear Torture, it makes sense quickly – very much different to the rest of the album, with little of the restraint shown elsewhere, it almost sounds like a different band, particularly the snarled, angry vocals that dominate the chorus. It’s not a bad song, actually, it just really doesn’t fit here.
[Additional note: The remixes and Torture are available on the digital version only]
That slightly out-of-kilter closing note aside, this is a solid, interesting album. A few songs aside, it is not by any means an album that will offer immediate gratification. It is one with insidious delights, where songs creep up on you after a good few listens, and suddenly they will click. In addition, this is something of an outlier in musical terms right now. With a lot of emphasis on the heavier end of industrial – especially with the surge in popularity for many of the younger bands right now (and a review of the new 3TEETH album will follow hot on the heels of this on amodelofcontrol.com) – there aren’t too many artists digging into synthpop like this, and this style is always welcome to me.
As I’ve already noted, this is quite the change of tack from FGFC820, and I might also suggest that this is both Arkana and Eldredge’s best work yet. Highly recommended.