Album Review: Architrave’s “Future Ruins”
Architrave is a group that at its core is defined by the space in between polarized continuums. Man and woman, joy and sorrow, proto-gothic new wave post-punk and techno/disco/dance music. The energy and longing for transcendence of youth, the wisdom and complacency of age. Dance and punk rock. Frenetic jarring rhythms and serene, quiet, reflective moments. I could keep going on, but we’re here to talk about their latest album, not their definition in any and all contexts, and my Captain Ahab like obsession over the pretense of achieving a transcendent definition that literally makes you hear the music through the sadly desiccated and embittered medium of post-rock journalism… say that five times fast!
But the truth is if you want to know what Architrave sounds like, you have to imagine two very different, complementary personalities very much in love with and influenced by one another. The sultry, crooning alto vocals of Jennifer Maher Coleman are enough to keep an entire album of mystique and intrigue together. But mix them with the unique guitar/tenor/bass electric string machines of authentic, deeply studied, and personally developed style that seamlessly mixes the smooth and harsh post-punk of New Order and Dead Can Dance with the proto-dream pop of Cocteau Twins and later shoegaze, all of which are crisp and individually recognizable and picked out due to the precision level production of sound master Paul Coleman. Add to these (as if all of them weren’t enough!) drum machine beats, groove box sequences, and synths that Jen and Paul utilize to make any and all sounds one could ever imagine define the exact sounds and feelings of any particular track, any particular second where just one clang or chime puts the perfect topping on the melange of myriad sounds, styles, and emotional evocations. And yet every single sound, instrument, clank, and chime can be identified, heard, and crisply isolated. You can see the forest and every single branch on every single tree… this is nothing short of a masterwork of the wizardry of the productive collaboration between husband and wife team in all things Jennifer Maher and Paul Coleman…
So I’ve been trying to come up with a better word to describe this album than ‘moody’ for months, but have ultimately failed. The reason it’s not entirely appropriate is that the term inevitably evokes negative connotations, as though ‘moods’ or perhaps the most strongly felt moods typically imply negative or unpleasant emotions. Which is at least partly true. But what this record conveys is a mood made up of a series of moods, strongly felt, that subtly and not so subtly shifts as it weaves its way through 10 tracks of love, longing, loss, and an overwhelming fear for the future. The future of the songwriter’s life and relationships is most likely the basic meaning of the ‘future ruins’ title, but the future of the human race and especially its culture is what I hear examined by this pensive, reflective, yet detached and godlike viewing of the ‘moodiness’ of this record.
Enough of the forest! Let’s start at the beginning; you can tell right away from the opening notes, introduction, and effects that this album is going to be a huge production. And more so than their previous album, which was itself an impressive array of thousands of electronic seamlessly blended sounds. As soon as you hear the effects on the vocals, the sampling, the drum machine claps, everything about ‘Blissed Out’ says ‘danceable hit song’.
The sample cut where Jennifer Maher-Coleman’s intonation of the phrase ‘Blissed out’ is heavily processed appears all throughout the track. When juxtaposed against the chorus where Maher-Coleman sings ‘You can make me forget’ in a similarly highly processed and doubled (tripled? dodecahedreckled?) vocal, the effect is that of a late eighties/early nineties techno/house track. Their previous record had more early 80s/new wave vibes, this one is jumping over the fence into heavy danceable electronics (not in a manner unlike gothic and new wave groups of the eighties like New Order and the Cure developed).
The subject matter of the song is something we can all relate to right now, though many of us may not be as lucky to have a reason to feel ‘blissed out’. By any subjective measure, one can define and/or measure, times are tough and uncertain right now. The global pandemic appeared to be waning and then, after so many of us got vaccinated and thought things would return to normal, the threat returned in a more powerful wave with the new virus strain. For a brief period, the Trump era was over and there might be a return to normalcy, but the administration’s very continued existence despite all threats from within and without it did at least survive. And now many ultra right wing, racist, and honestly evil groups have gained strength and confidence. The threat is real and we’re seeing it every day; as soon as it looks like it’s going to let up it’s back in full force…
But if we have something in our life, like someone we love, they can ‘make us forget’ all of our and the larger world outside’s growing litany of troubles. While the world burns around us, we gaze into their eyes and realize it’s not all bad and there is always hope. We may need to turn ourselves off in many ways for long amounts of time, but as long as we have something or someone to keep us feeling good sometimes “We’re Gonna Be Alright.”
The second track clearly exhibits that this is not a standard commercial record. The diversity of Architrave’s music hits right off given all the ground covered on this song. Crown Shyness begins in an almost prog rock stream of synthesizer riffs, quickly followed up by the kind of catchy repetitive synth riffs you’d hear in a New Order or Peter Gabriel track.
Headcount is definitely a standout track that gets your blood flowing and your feet tapping so rhythmically that by the second minute without realizing it you find yourself on the floor, wishing you had something other than carpet to dance on. This is an energetic new wave style rocker that’s in the vein of the high tech four on the floor rager. Yet it also includes elements of 90s alternative; the high octane, hi-fi production, and sullen crooning vocals remind me of Shirley Manson with Garbage. And at just under 3 minutes, it’s certainly the type of song that could be a hit single or a short dance track free to be mixed into twenty minutes or a whole night…
Louis Kahn reminds me of the alluring beats and super hip science synths of their first album. However, the constant repeating of the highly processed ‘future’ phrase in and out along the track clearly shows us we’re in the new ‘future’ era. Of both the group and, well, now. Of course, we’re both in the future and the past at all times, the past constantly surrounding us yet simultaneously screaming it’s not there, no matter how ‘concrete’ and immovable it appears. And like time, this track is constantly moving and yet staying exactly the same… one of those things about Architrave that makes them terrifically unique and clearly exhibits the mastery of their own self-invented musical language. When does the verse begin and end? Is there a chorus? A bridge? Has anything changed? It certainly sounds like it has and yet it hasn’t. The kind of track with so many catchy melodies vocalized by a single, flowing, unerring and unharmonized instrument that gets better and more under your skin with each new spin that it doesn’t matter where the elements are or would otherwise be.
It’s on this title track where the thematic and conceptual elements that run throughout the album are highlighted and explicated most forcefully; like the metaphor of the “beautiful prison” where the “grid of glass” is “forever closed”. The windows don’t open and the years don’t get in. Inside though, the dust and oxidization also have nowhere to go to and eat the building’s interior until it’s a new kind of beautiful, no more hyperclean structured corporate forms but;
“Clean and majestic from afar
Come close, stroke the erosion
Iron bruises, timeless scars
Concrete, Louis Kahn
Monoliths against the blue.”
The Salk Institute, one of the most famous and recognizable of Kahn’s works is over 80 years old yet appears like it’s been there far longer, and could last forever. It evokes both great emptiness and great possibility, building on what’s come before with a unique vision that only Kahn himself could bring to life, an all too apt metaphor for the unique vision, emptiness and fullness of Architrave’s music. The electronic instruments, especially the chimes, claps, and guitar lines throughout also let us know that the past holds great beauty despite being a ‘beautiful prison’. Outside are the trappings of an old, formidable Empire. Inside, the decay and emptiness that let us know the empire is hollow and the emperor himself, naked.
Loved and Lost has a traditional club music beat, with an ethereal grouping of sounds that have a very underwater, jungle, and ambient feel to them. This is a laid back track with soft, sweet vocals low in the mix and the standard dance beat running throughout. Pieces of the synths even evoke sweet tenor saxophones at times for a kind of relief from the, dare I say ‘moodiness’ of the rest of the album. This could be an Everything but the Girl track, exhibiting Architrave’s familiarity with and appreciation of jazz pop, trip hop, and so many other underground club genres. And yet despite the unfamiliarity of this type of sound, Architrave masters it as though they’ve been doing it their entire career.
Humble and Good is not surprisingly a humble and good track. The now-familiar affected guitar line that enters following sparse synth hits and a typical backbeat is inviting and full of sorrow, full of contradiction and space and everything else in the right place. This is one of the areas where Paul Coleman’s tenor guitar split with an opposing bass array truly shines through. It’s as though both Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner are playing a single guitar instead of two. Like a mid-period Cure or New Order track, melding post-punk with the coming danceable techno music still being developed back in those days.
Truth Serum has all the elements of their signature sounds; new wave synths and sultry vocals, old school instrumental tracks and intriguing, understated melodies abound. The melding of dozens of eighties and nineties group sounds and genres that Architrave makes their own, OWNS and makes the sound brand new again.
Rend the Garments is an even more eclectic track that blends and also clearly shows Architrave’s heaviest influences. Also, as you’d expect from the title, it’s the most unusual, darkest track on the record. It has an unconventional verse melody which only becomes more intriguing with the unexpected changes and returns. The intro and guitar work sounds very much like Seventeen Seconds era Cure. And when the synths creep in, surrounded by the stepped-up drum machine beats and awash in the omnipresent hall reverb you’re well aware that you’re in a ‘darkwave’ cave. It begins with sounds reminiscent of late Joy Division/early New Order and early Dead Can Dance, and moves straight to later developments into this century of darkwave, and then (despite its unusually long time of 4 minutes +) it ends and leaves, just as mysteriously as it drew you in. Like most of the other songs that aren’t as unpredictable, what holds this track together as it hums along at unusual places and changes are the beautiful, ruminative, and forlorn vocals. In this song, they’re mixed like another instrument, into the track in a way that makes the lyrics almost incidental as the mood is all too clear already. This is a track of personal suffering, endurance, and overcoming. And the depth and perfectly subtle, completely free of artifice vocals of Maher-Coleman tie the almost progressive, highly unusual and innovative track together so seamlessly you can feel the absolute power of her instrument in this track like no other, as low and unaffected as it is, it holds your attention and interest.
By the time we get to Slice of Life, we’re certainly in what feels like the end of some sort of darkwave aside. And this end assembles what we’ve learned with where we started; this is somehow the most comfortable track on the album and also the most comforting. There are elements that cause it to sound more like early college or what was called ‘modern rock’ back in the 80s. As though Tears for Fears and early Talk Talk hooked up with Peter Gabriel and (as I can’t help but consistently hear and LOVE) the unique stringed instrumentation of Hook and Sumners from Joy Division and New Order. It’s also the track with the least catchy choruses and samples, a track that relies on its strong melody and the tones it sets to create a dark, foreboding mood.
I gotta admit, ‘Take it Slow’ is my least favorite track and I don’t feel like it fits on the album. The main reason is that the vocals are so heavily processed, you can’t hear one of the (if not THE) aspect of architrave that makes them so great, Jennifer Maher Coleman’s transcendently sultry vocals. With all the effects it feels like someone else is singing. And yet, I feel like I get it and this is exactly what it’s supposed to be. This track doesn’t belong because it’s not supposed to; it’s about the future. And the future is unrecognizable. Even without the occurrence of the singularity, we’re at the twilight of the album and possibly of our years. to all of us, including Architrave themselves. Things may be good now, things may not be bad, we may be feeling ‘blissed out’ for years… but on the other hand, we need to try to “be kind and take it slow”, because
“I mean who fucking knows
We’ve already come this far
There’s not much further to go”
Everything will inevitably change. Eventually, we won’t even recognize the sound of our own voices… is there a future at all?
Which is truly the perfect ending to this deeply moody, soul searching, ruminative record. Architrave is both deeply developed and yet still developing; integrating well worn soundscapes to create a very specific, very pensive mood. And the fact that the final track leaves me personally both confused and a little disappointed is perfect. Architrave is clearly getting better and more in tune with themselves musically with each year, their niche is solidifying, and yet, because they’re real, sincere people, they wonder where this is getting them. Where they’re going. What the point of this will be, who it will affect, who will it influence, who will have their life changed by it? Who knows? Architrave is wise enough to know none of us do, yet strong and inspired enough to give their all, which is a powerful, deeply felt, and deeply moving thing to say the least.