We built Atlantis in the space of a day. Our new home. We built our own utopian baby.
Indeed. It’s been four long years since we’ve seen the Finnish draftsmen emerge from a mountain cave holding a bopping, eclectic pop-album tablet, and in their fourth coming, Moment Bends, time has certainly changed them. Now I should note that this is a review from an avid Architecture in Helsinki fan, from someone who’s seventeen-year-old self was defined by the sounds of Places Like This, with a bottle of vodka in one hand, oversized multicolour sunglasses and a jerking scream that “I felt my head exploding, so I left it beside the road!” If you’re unfamiliar with the Architectonical Scandinavians then for god-sake’s stop. Don’t let That Beep or Moment Bends be your introduction to this wonderfully Australian electronic group – this artist is best listened to chronologically, start with Fingers Crossed, then In Case We Die so you can properly appreciate their best album Places Like This (don’t bother with the stop-gap collection of remixes We Died, They Remixed, which largely works to remove the flavour and jump of the original songs). Have you done that? Right, good.
The reason I say Places Like This is Architecture’s best album is because it’s a perfect mix of their optimistic, bubblegum lyrics, their high-beat and insatiable pop melodies and the still slightly rough and organic vocals. They were an unpolished acoustic ruckus, with occasional moments of surprisingly gooey softness. That their voices occasionally strained perfected their catchy and must-dance-to tunes. Case-in-point is my still-favourite song of theirs, Hold Music. “I bought us a dragon, to lighten the load.” Instead of being obviously electronic, it was a torrent of interesting noises – if you didn’t know they were an instrument-free band you would probably be none the wiser, instead imagining a stage being ever filled with more and more types of unusual and interesting instruments and sounds. Yes, it was fluff, but it was awesome fluff. In their search for the perfect pop hook they produced unapologetically fun music that rejected cynicism and seriousness. Something that was refreshing in a distinctly darker Australian electro scene.
But, bands must evolve, and after a long gap we saw the release of the single That Beep, a song that while not nearly as good as their previous singles, hinted at a new direction for the group. When their album Moment Bends finally dropped two weeks ago we got to see exactly what that new direction was. They are still on a quest for the holy pop-hook, but that search is now more produced and unfortunately, noticeably stunted.
The polishing of the Nordic Engineers was inevitable, and at first, I was disappointed. The initial listen-through washed over me, like so many new albums to old fans, it was different and I didn’t like it. Worse than just my own reactionary impulses, it all seemed flat and featureless. But repeat listens luckily do treat her better. The sound has definitely mellowed, the cracking screams replaced by softer, smoother and less-exciting singing. Even more noticeable is the zealous use of synths. Where the early albums, at first glance, sounded like two dozen people standing in front of a microphone clanging every instrument they could find, Moment Bends is an unmistakably and unapologetically electronic album.
The second single off the album, Contact High, stands out from previous singles with a somewhat monotonous and pseudo-futurist sound. The weird David Bowie film clip and the minimalist album artwork perhaps reflect the way this new Architecture sees itself. Some songs are as disastrous as I feared. The song W.O.W. is glossy, featureless and sentimental in all the wrong ways. Lacking the bubbly innocence of the band’s earlier slow songs, it also lacks the strength or richness needed to push past this presumably irretrievable naivety. No, it’s worse than that – Architecture always straddles the line between odd and cheesy, and W.O.W. veers off into territory more appropriately belonging to an Aqua song from the 90s. Similarly the final song B4 3D has a slow and clumsy melody that ends the album on a low, which is a shame. That Beep, a song that I could never bring myself to fully embrace, seems oddly out of place, like a relic from their pre-enlightened way of thinking. The amount of time between that single’s release and the release of the album has left it’s mark.
But the band had to go somewhere, and in enough places, their character and charm do show through. The first track, Desert Island, is absurdly optimistic, promising the initially quoted utopian world. It’s bright and fluffy synth sounds mix well with their characteristic odd and eclectic lyrical imagery, proving appropriately irresistible. Perhaps more importantly, Desert Island and the next track Escapee are ultimately dance-inducing, they will colour many a winter party in Melbourne, and they got the crowd going at Groovin’ The Moo. Even Contact High, while at first I lamented it’s precise calculation, it’s all-too-structured hooks and seemingly processed and stunted vocals, I have to admit – it seems to work. The song has a robotic charm all it’s own, despite its self-imposed constraints, and works as a decidedly self-conscious pop-song. If it was from any other band, I doubt I would listen to it, but I get its appeal. From there the LP lumbers along, with I Know Deep Down providing a needed burst of energy and Everything’s Blue feeling not unlike Architecture’s take on Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. 80s-inspired synths is a constant through the album, listen too closely and you can see yourself lining up outside Teen Wolf in neon leggings whilst rejecting conventional Keynesian economic theory.
Yes, there is something sad about this record. The new style and self-identification of the band (they describe themselves as a “modernist pop group,” something that is reflected in their interesting if sterile accompanying art) perhaps works against the best aspects of their old sound. But Moment Bends should not be discounted. It is an important new step for a band that if it didn’t evolve, would fall into lame self-imitation. Yes, they’ve traded their irresistible, effervescent highs and occasional self-indulgent lows for a consistent, tight and polished packet. As a result this album loses a bit of what made Architecture special, their distinctive sound is constrained, controlled and sometimes flat. The best songs don’t peak like they should and it’s hard to escape the sense that this could be an album from any other electro-pop outfit. Yes, at Groovin’ The Moo when the loudest cheer from the crowd came when they started playing Contact Hight, I died a bit inside. But, despite their paring back and being polished almost to oblivion, the Fennoscandian Masons are still injecting fun and erratic-dance-worthy music into the world. This is a band attempting to mature, and to do to so they are clipping their own wings. Let’s just hope they don’t forget how to fly.
Should You Get It? For Architecture fans, there’s a few good grooves that sneak up on you, but it’s likely to dissapoint. For those who’ve never listened to this quirky band from Fitzroy, take the the time to download their early stuff then work your way from there.