With Puzzlewood, Plone Invites Listeners Into an Analog Synth Wonderland (Review)

Puzzlewood is the retro-futurist synth band’s first album in over two decades — and it’s a welcome return.

One of my favorite releases on the venerable Warp label is Plone’s 1999 debut album, For Beginner Piano. Sounding like Joy Electric remixed by Boards of Canada, the group’s analog synth music was by turns playful and nostalgic, and served as a whimsical counterpart to their retro-futurist contemporaries in Broadcast and Pram. (That Plone’s music was a pleasantly humble rejoinder to Warp’s bigger, more audacious acts like Autechre, Squarepusher, and of course, Aphex Twin was just an added bonus.)

Unfortunately, Warp rejected Plone’s sophomore album and shortly thereafter, the band’s members moved on to other projects (e.g., Modified Toy Orchestra, Seeland, ZX Spectrum Orchestra). I’d still do the occasional search for Plone in the following years, just to see if anything was in the works, but I’d pretty much given up hope for any new music from the band.

Jump ahead to last week, when Spotify’s algorithm deigned to alert me to a new Plone album (even though it had actually been released back in April). My excitement was further compounded by the fact that Puzzlewood was released on Ghost Box, which is pretty much a perfect match. Ghost Box’s aesthetic, with its focus on library music, strange analog experiments, and skewed nostalgia, taps into the same vibe that characterized For Beginner Piano all those decades ago. (Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Plone is counted as an influence by some members of the Ghost Box roster.)

Part of the joy of For Beginner Piano was how simple and straightforward its songs were, replete with playful melodies rendered bright and colorful by Plone’s knob-twiddling. Puzzlewood finds the band’s remaining two members still conjuring up playful, uplifting tones. Consider the ear-dazzling kaleidoscope of bleeps, bloops, and other analog bric-à-brac that immediately sets the album’s tone on the opening salvo of ​“Years and Elements,” ​“Miniature Magic,” and the too-cute title track — a tone that’s marked by whimsy, optimistic flights of fancy, and starry-eyed reminiscence.

But it’s also obvious that the duo has expanded their sonic palette, with shimmering guitars (“Miniature Magic”), horns (“Watson’s Telescope”), and even string arrangements (“The Model Village”) supplementing and enhancing the duo’s array of vintage synths and vocoders.

The resulting music isn’t as direct or straightforward as For Beginner Piano, but upon repeated listens, the layered and intricate Puzzlewood reveals itself to be just as charming as its predecessor — though with the added delight of being a bit unpredictable. For example, I’m still thrown for a loop whenever those funky guitar licks and danceable rhythms à la Out Hud kick in on ​“Day Trip” or when ​“Chalk Stream” becomes propelled by arpeggiated synths and a krautrock-ish beat.

Puzzlewood does contain moments that fall flat. ​“Sarcelle,” for example, evokes a twee Ladytron with its vocal samples and rapid-fire synthwork, and would probably have been a better b-side. The same holds true for ​“Sweet Factory,” which feels less like a proper song and more like a clearinghouse of samples and sounds that Plone couldn’t fit in anywhere else.

Those minor quibbles aside, Puzzlewood is a welcome and delightful return. When they released For Beginner Piano in 1999, Plone billed their music as ​“timeless electronic melodies.” Two decades later, Puzzlewood is proof of that descriptor’s truth. At its best, Plone creates music that truly feels like it’s being channelled in from another era — an era that the duo brings to vivid life with oodles of analog charm.