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Ghostland Observatory - Robotique Majestique Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 March 2008
ImageThough no studio album can fully recreate the collective energy and creative spontaneity that is shared between artist and audience when a performance unfolds in real time, you do have to be suspicious when you hear someone say of a band, “Their albums suck, but they’re amazing live.” From the Grateful Dead to just about every artist whose main gift is improvisation, the argument goes that the creative act is the pure and undiluted moment, something that pushes music into a transcendent realm that is beyond anything that can be captured on tape (or hard drives) in sterile and controlled rooms. No doubt, the craft of album-making and the art of live performance are different disciplines, and musicians naturally have varying strengths that show themselves in different settings, but a concert is ultimately an ephemeral experience that can only be enjoyed by a comparably small number of people, living on only in their memories. Albums last forever.

Continuing a trend popular among electronic acts who largely rely on samples and laptops that have taken to making their shows a live spectacle of laser lights, costumes and larger-than-life theatrics, Ghostland Observatory have become local legends in Austin, Texas through three years of ecstatically received performances. Like Daft Punk, Justice, and the Knife, they are a duo who favor retro synth tones, robotic dance grooves and un-ironic pop hooks. Unlike those acts, Ghostland Observatory is comprised of two Americans, and they have yet to successfully translate the power of their live performances onto record. Their third full-length, Robotique Majestique is their third attempt to prove that they aren’t another band that has to be seen to be believed. Opening with space horror movie synths and spaceship landing sound effects, the duo makes obvious their cinematic ambitions with “Opening Credits,” an eerie and claustrophobic introduction to an album that promises to be more ambitious than anything they’ve done previously. Those ominous and ambient tones return for “Heavy Heart,” with vocalist Aaron Behrens yelping and cooing over the old school drum loops, misfiring computer noises and sinister bass lines. For certain, Behrens is a powerhouse vocalist, both soulful and preening in equal doses, but his George Michael-via-Freddie Mercury panting is an ineffective counterpoint for the stilted ‘80s synth-pop sound. Still, Behrens is an undeniably engaging performer, almost single-handedly saving the overbearingly earnest “Dancing on My Grave” and the electro-metal menace of “No Place for Me.” But no vocalist can save some of these songwriting sins.

One has to admire just how fully committed the duo is to using textures and tones from the mid-‘80s, and there’s no denying that they bravely toe the line between reverence and mockery. But despite the masterful recreation of clumsy hip-hop beats and keytar flourishes in “Club Soda” and the splashy electronic drums and farting synths of “Free Heart Lover,” the duo seems a bit too eager to adopt the cheesiest of vintage ‘80s pop clichés. In fact, the best moments on the album are those where they drop the pretense altogether, with the evilly-snaking keyboard runs, distorted vocal ticks and heavily-muffled beats of “HFM” providing the album’s most memorable moment, one where the carefully coiffed production unravels into a viscerally chaotic mix of electro-punk frenzy. Such off-the-script moments are rare, but they offer proof that the duo is capable of coming up with something they didn’t steal from the theme to Miami Vice.

Unfortunately, despite a number of smart hooks and adventurous arrangements, Robotique Majestique is a perfect example of style over substance. Though the craftsmanship inherent in so thoroughly mastering a largely forgotten era of pop music is impressive, the fact remains that these songs simply don’t stand up as much more than homage. These aren’t songs that could survive a translation into any other context, as the hooks aren’t memorable enough and the lyrics aren’t substantial enough to support any other interpretation. In short, these are songs that are so firmly rooted in their aesthetic that they almost become parodies of themselves. No doubt, one catches more than a whiff of irreverence in their over-the-top theatricality and telltale overstatement, but if Ghostland Observatory is in the business of wise-ass club anthems, they need to let us in on the joke. Until then, it’s better to leave them on the stage and out of your record collection.

Without a doubt, Ghostland Observatory is successful in creating an exact replica of mid-‘80s pop sounds. Despite a handful of tortured guitar riffs and wickedly cut up beats, there’s nothing about this album that sounds like it was made in the last 20 years. To that extent, the album sounds fantastic, nailing every sonic signpost that nostalgic ears would expect. Further, the arrangements are meticulously crafted and perfectly executed, with nearly everything in the mix coming from drum machines and keyboards. Better equipment will make those details clear, but cheap boom box speakers might provide the accurate listening experience if you grew up listening to radio in the ‘80s. It’s just a shame the songs aren’t better.

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