The demand of a reviewer to come to an album with no preconceived notions is absurd. As humans, there’s no possible way for us to approach an album with a completely clean slate; we’ll always have our prejudices, expectations and ideas about how an album might sound like. The true demand from a good music journalist (and any journalist, if we’re being honest) is mental flexibility. The ability to discard preconceived notions in the face of the facts of the album is where true integrity lies; if you’re too possessive about your own ideas, you won’t be able to properly appreciate the works of art that you are faced with. More than that, these preconceived notions are useful tools, enabling us to relate and understand our fans, who have the same ideas and expectations. Thus, we need to learn how to connect and channel them, making sure that the tools don’t become the masters rather than just shutting them in their corner.
What in heaven’s name does this have to do with Perturbator? Well, this is where things get personal. You see, I had always liked Perturbator’s music but felt, at the same time, that there was more potential to be tapped. Dangerous Days is a great album but one which, I feel, could have been a fantastic album if more variation had been added into the breakneck rhythms. Lying dormant beneath the furious dedication to darkwave barrages, crouched in wait below the thrumming, never-ending, neon-tinged tracks, I could feel some sort of future flowering waiting for space to breathe. To be sure, there are plenty of ambient tracks on there but they felt tacked on, an afterthought rather than a true, organic part of the album. Sure, “Minuit” and “Hard Wired” existed but they were somehow lacking, not fully realized in their deviance.
And then came The Uncanny Valley. What awaited me within the rich alleys of this album was exactly what I had hoped for: Perturbator with wings unclipped, flying free into dimensions only imagined beforehand. Thing is, you have to wait before the true genius of this album unfolds. The first two tracks, “Neo Tokyo” and “Weapons For Children” are fantastic tracks, but they’re standard fare, fast paced tracks which set the stage for another delve into the urbane dystopia of Perturbator’s dreams. The rich synth lines are satisfying, especially the little twists in “Neo Tokyo”, and the pulsing beats get the job done. Other than that though, it seems as if business is usual and that’s…OK? Sure. However, things are about to change for the better in Futuretown™, a thickening of the plot that will unlock the true potential of this haunting cityscape.
“Femme Fatale” (featuring one Highway Superstar, a name which should mean something to you if you’re versed in this scene) is where everything changes. Suddenly, the beat drops low and from the smooth jazz underways that have always cut across the futuristic skylines of retrowave comes gentle saxophone. This track is hauntingly beautiful, even more so than usual for Perturbator: synths play the part of radiant, background atmosphere here, adding a lush aesthetic to the whole thing. Their notes also add much needed variety to the end of the track, piercing its regularity with weird, off-key intonations. All of these contribute to it being much more than any of the quieter tracks did on Dangerous Days. “Femme Fatale” is fully realized, independent and beautiful in its own right, not just a scaffold used to support the rest of the album or a foil to its intensity.
From here, the album juggles back and forth between the classic sounds we expected from it and the more fresh ideas that make it its own creation. “Disco Inferno” and “She Moves Like A Knife” are a powerful duo, old school Perturbator to the extreme. They take advantage of the previous lull, created by female vocals on both “Venger” and “Sentient” (Greta Link and Hayley Stewart, respectively). This creates something that previous albums lacked: dynamics. Since all the more laid back tracks feel like natural progressions of the music rather than intentional breaks, a rising and falling structure is created. If you thought the breakneck thump-thump of the bass was exhilarating before, imagine how hard it hits after you were flying away on dreamy, enchanting vocals. “Diabolus Ex Machina” for example, would have been stock fare on previous albums. However, it is here magnified a thousand-fold, striking deep and true after the more relaxed track that comes right before it, while both feel as natural, organic and cohesive, one unit operating on the listener rather than disparate, albeit beautiful, parts.
All of this would have been great in and of itself. However, Perturbator is not quite done and an even bigger shift in form is waiting for us near the end of the album. “Souls At Zero” features Astronoid, a name that doesn’t mean much to plenty of you but will come to mean a whole lot soon. It’s also the most spaced out, borderline drone, track that Perturbator has ever released. It reminds one of the Sunn O)))/Ulver collab album, hinted sounds erupting from a static, aural fog that is rich in possible directions. Of course, this track has an electronic pallette rather than the fuzz of the aforementioned project but the idea is the same: you let sounds simmer and then catch what floats to the top. Beyond that, the nod/possible cover to Neurosis drives its message home with vocals from the aforementioned band. These ground the track and give it a solid structure and feel before it fades out. Near the end, you can hear a clear Carpenter Brut nod, with a sample that sounds so much like one of the samples on Trilogy that it makes those who are familiar with the ties between the two smile.
And then “The Uncanny Valley” appears to close everything off. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is the best track Perturbator has ever made. It’s dreamy, sweat drenched and moving, containing one of the best keyboard solos in the artist’s career, near the five minute mark. It also features some incredible guitar near the outro, closing off the album on a nostalgic and impactful note. The whole track is the album writ large, the fascinating mix of Perturbator’s iconic tones with a more varied, shifting approach. To come full circle, I am so glad to have had my expectations shattered here: I walked into this valley expecting a good artist doing more of the same. I came out of it with a new appreciation for Perturbator’s artistic integrity and his devotion to constantly push the envelope on his scene. This is why I try to keep my mind flexible, so it can wrap itself around such beautiful and challenging albums. I urge you to open your ears and do the same.