Heather JamesNull Device — Sublimation
As a musical consumer always looking for the newest and best thing in synthpop and electronica, I?ve gone down some strange paths in search of it. But here it is! The newest good thing, and (almost literally) in my own backyard. Claiming diverse musical influences including world, classical, and 80s britpop and synthpop, the geeky duo of Eric Oehler and Eric Goedken produce a fantastic synthpop treat. This is easily one of the best synthpop albums I?ve heard in a year — with infectious beats insistently driving irresistble synth lines. This is exquisitely produced music, tweaked to sleek perfection yet still maintaining musical integrity with a little soul and a lot of style. They avoid redundant electronic loops, keeping things fresh and interesting. Thematically its a great album exploring the depth of human experience and feelings, a swan song and angsty existential cry of the late-20-something Gen X-er … oh, and they just really like making synthpop! For more info about what the artists think of their work, see my interview with them floating elsewhere on the site.
Null Device has obvoiusly learned lessons form the masters of 80?s synthpop: Depeche Mode, New Order, the Eurythmics, and the Pet Shop Boys. They take those lessons and build on them, adding exotic beats and vocal complexity. Null Device EXCELS at the bittersweet angsty relationship song, like “I Probably Know You”: “I probably know you better than you think I do; I probably know you better than you?d like”. Eric O?s vocals are smooth and a bit on the ironic side. “Blindsighted” deals with the regrets that come with the often 20-20 hindsight nature of relationships. “My pretty baby, I must have been looking at you blind”, for lyrical example. This is an extremely danceable track with great harmonic vocals on the chorus. “How” is another track in this vein, a stompy dancefloor song with deep drums like thumping hearts. Very apropos. This is a spiritual groove with reverb and echoing vocals. The “ND Dancefloor Angst” remix of this is just as good if not better; slightly more cold and electronic and beat-laden. You know, angsty. Eric G shows great poetic sensibility throughout, pairing bleak and beautiful words with Eric O?s musical textures. Its a winning combination, to be sure! This album will be on my Top Ten of 2002.
Null Device does down-tempo just as well as they do up, surprisingly! Eric O. has obviously studied the making of classical and ambient music, for “Call of the Rose” begins with swelling, heartrending atmospheric chords with the hint of dark beats to come — and they arive on time. It has its moments reminiscent of both New Order and Depeche Mode, but they pass by in a heartbeat, like the remembembrance triggered by a fleeting whiff of a much-loved smell. In other words, it doesn?t take away from the splendid reality of the music. “Neverland” is also ambiently-influenced — haunting and beautiful instrumental sounds are joined by syncopated thudding drums, more heartbeats. Icy winds of abandonment and disappointment blow through this piece. The whispered spoken-word poem is delightfully sinister. This is one of my favorite tracks on this album, for its sheer evocative power. “Sacre Coeur” is singularly laid-back, but not relaxed: the tension is created by interweaving brooding vocals, poignant melody, and tingling keyboards over top. It?s a grinding Depeche Mode-esque ballad with plenty of echo and reverb: “Sacre coeur, my sacred heart, take my hand and let the bleeding start”. Null Device isn?t afraid to add organic instruments to their mix, either. Eric?s gorgeous violin solo opens up the ballad “If Only For A While”. It is bare and spare and lovely all the way through. Bereft and hopeless is the feeling left by this song and its sparse Cure-like guitar line: “Living for the moment, Hoping for a smile; This will keep me going, If only for a while”.
While I have spent much time extolling Null Device?s virtues in the realm of balladry, let me not forget to give equal attention to their heroic dancefloor antics. “Word and Deed? is a prime example of Null Device?s brilliance for infectious dancy anthems. It is fast and fluid, with syncopated exotic beats. The samples and spoken word intertwined with the lyrics give it a slightly industrial feel at times, without completely crossing over the genre line. A divine tease, that! “Fly Skyward” is another dancefloor gem. The Erics understand the art of inspiring the desire to dance. This is a triumphant, jubilant, bouncy little song. It seems a bit more opitmistic than the rest, perhaps, with the following lyrics in evidence: “We strike the ground like falling rain; We fly skyward to live again”. Not to mention, a groovy mix of ?Footfalls” contributed by guest remixer and fellow-Madisonian Stromkern (they?re a musically incestuous bunch, those in the electronic music field).
I need at this point to devote an entire paragraph to my favorite tracks on this album. “The Sad Truth” is my hands-down favorite — for sheer dance value as well as subject matter. At once bittersweet, stompy and bouncy, its beats drive and hound me. Musically its extremely tight and complicated. You can bounce a quarter off it! It beings with the words “Wake from sleep.; covered like a burial shroud”, which resonate deeply in my soul and mind. That pervasive sense of melancholy, “live through waking dreams” and drifting through life, is something I?ve felt often. The chorus leaves us with the haunting question: “Why is the sad truth no better than a simple lie?” Conversely, I get extremely euphoric whenever I hear Null Device?s delightful updating of the Smith?s tune “There?s a Light that Never Goes Out”. It?s a bit faster than the original, great for dancing and spinning, with the addition of synth-lines only hinted at previously, buried deeply in the chords of the original. Null Device teases them out oh-so-delicately. The vocals are less dark than Morrissey?s maybe, but Eric?s still got a croon going, and that yearning quality is maintained. It?s art! I mean that.
“Sublimation” is an extremely sophisticated debut and a wonderfully cohesive work. There is a lot of bad formulaic electronic music out there, but that?s not a trap that Null Device has fallen into. I?ve almost worn my copy out, and will have to obtain another. That?s saying something. Kudos to the geek boys!
Recommended if you like: Depeche Mode, New Order, Iris, Peter Murphy, The Smiths