This is the second album from electronica duo Scienius. In the way of a quick catch-up for those who don’t know the duo; they play electronica based on the sounds produced by retro electronic instruments. To my ‘been there, got the t-shirt’ ears this seems to sit in a period from the early post-punk electronica – such as Human League – to the heyday of synth based music in the 80s. This means I spend the whole review, if I wished to, name-checking bands and artists from that period both obscure and well known; but I won’t. The first reason for this is because those references possibly won’t mean anything to you.
The second is that in the period between the first album and this release, their sound no longer feels as retro as it used to. This may be because I’ve just got used to itp; an easy reason but not one I’m taking. In fact I think it’s because of the rise of post-punk influenced music recently, and that I’m listening to an increasingly large number of new artists using this retro electronica sound to make new music by mixing it with sounds of now. That said, let’s dig in.
‘Life’s A Thing Again’. Now while this could be interpreted as a personal rebirth or a global one is up for debate. The sound is reminiscent of mid-period Depeche Mode (that’s a rule broken), in that it’s sparse; based around a strident rhythm track with bursts of a richer sound. How while I’ve announced this album as sounding like rebirth, there is an edge, the sound seems to suggest ‘life’s a thing again?. There’s a moody undercurrent that runs beneath.
‘A Million To Go’ is richer, with carefully crafted layers of sound. And the vocals are more upfront. There is a distinctly post-punk tone to this track – that sits near to New Order – even though there are subtle nods to Rave. The duality in the tracks is laid bare in ‘High Low’. The music manages to sound both dark and pop bright. The vocals, by the way, are a thing of loveliest.
‘La Meme Nuit’ shifts up in tempo. Pulsing sounds, repetitive phrases. In contrast the vocals are deadpan and world weary. Again there’s that duality, the music sounding hard edged and frantic, the vocals not. Although it sounds retro in sound, it doesn’t; there’s an of now sound that’s there as well.
No Scenius album would be complete without a track (or more) that is all about atmosphere, mood and emotional response; ‘Hindsight’ is that. This is far from being a conventional song, being built on sounds that rise and fall with vocals that are seemingly improvised over the sounds. It might be better thought of a sound piece.
Now ‘Chinese Room’ was released as a single (read my full review here). It brings the dark into the forefront. In fact the more I listen to it the more scary I find it (in a good way, I love music that puts me on edge). Here harsh edgy and rich sounds collide to produce something utterly wonderful.
With ‘Escalation’ we have a track that in name seems to reflect its music structure. It’s made up of sections that escalate from low key to bright. Strangely it has me in mind of sounding like Joy Division doing electronica (OK, so I’ve given up sticking to that rule). It has a dark pulsing quality. As does ‘’Moon Fall’ which combines that pulse with a glorious vocal tune that is so totally earwormy it hurts.
‘Rise Above’ is another of those deeply atmospheric and moody Scienius tracks that sits in the dark end of their musical sound. Low synth sounds underpin what is actually your classic ballad. Go on, listen to it and then imagine this with just a piano, see what I mean.
The album closes with ‘Hot Dust’. A track that does not do the usual album thing of ending on a happy note. Instead, edgy harsh sounds crawl beneath swells of very slightly off-kilyer synth. It evokes a darkness, a mood, an emotion. There is one part of this song with vocals, the rest is given over to pure atmosphere.
While their songs can be enigmatic, with meanings that are hard to decipher, there does appear to be an arc in the album; if only in sound, from bright with a dark underbelly to dark with lyrics that seem to contradict that. Now I might be wrong in that but that’s the feeling I get. This album doesn’t wear its story on its sleeve but demands interpretation by the listener. And this is a good thing, that makes it an album you need and want to go back to again and again, creating your own story, your own meanings.
And what is going to help you with this is the complete brilliance of their music. While it may be electronica, this is merely the means they use to make music that is emotional and atmospheric. It may have some sounds that could be sequenced but others sound like they are played by people in real time. It has the soul of musicians.making music organically. This is, as I’ve said before, how electronica should be done.
‘Life Is A Thing’ is a darkly beautiful album made by two people who so obviously care deeply about their music. This is a must for fans of electronica, that goes without saying. But if you love well made, atmospheric and emotion laden music of any kind but not ventured into electronica, listen to this.