Back in 1997 – 1998, when electronica was poised to make a big splash on this side of the pond, thanks to the likes of The Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, I was discovering a different sort of electronica. I was discovering what was termed “drum n’ bliss,” music which took the furious and spastic rhythms of drum n’ bass and jungle and married them to the graceful, dreamy atmospherics of 4AD and shoegazer acts. Darla Records was spearheading the movement, releasing albums from groups such as Junior Varsity KM, Color Filter, Technicolor, and Sweet Trip.
Unfortunately, it seems like many of these groups have practically disappeared off the face of the earth since then. Junior Varsity KM (arguably drum n’ bliss’ poster boy) hasn’t released anything since 1999’s Teledesic Disco, Color Filter’s last major release was 2000’s disappointing I Often Think in Music, and Sweet Trip had vanished after 2000’s blissed out Halica.
Well, with Velocity : Design : Comfort, at least one of those groups is back. And in this case, it was well worth the wait. Velocity : Design : Comfort finds Sweet Trip on top of their game, delivering an album that feels like a thoroughly modern version of Darla’s signature sound, circa 1999.
There are times when the album displays a lack of focus. It’s as if like the duo loved experimenting with their sound so much they sometimes forgot they were recording, and so we hear everything. Or maybe they were just anxious to make up for the three-year wait.
Whatever the case, sometimes the result is a song like “Pro : Lov : Ad,” which contains beautiful fragments of icy programming and lazily-strummed guitars sprinkled throughout its length. Fragments which are too often lost amidst a jumbled assortment of electronic bleeps and drum machine outbursts.
In other cases, it means you have to wade through a fair amount of filler in order to get to the really good music. “Velocity” starts off with anything but, as meandering electronic tones and stop-start programming take up the first half of the song. Once the song actually gets going, it still doesn’t pick up much speed. Instead, it resembles a sleepy Stereolab piece, but it’s far more cohesive and pretty than its beginning.
The ten-minute “International” contains almost exactly seven minutes of absolutely gorgeous material. Valerie’s voice coos and flutters over percolating synths, sputtering rhythms, and assorted sonic twitches before fading into a graceful finale of sparse piano and spiraling guitars. But to get to this, you have to sit through three minutes of shapeless electronica, glitchy vocals, and fuzzy guitar pop, all of which feels completely unnecessary. While they don’t ruin the song, cutting them out would have only made a great song even better.
Once you make it past the filler and the songs actually get started, though, the band’s affinity for liberally applying cut, paste, and glitch makes for a compelling listen. The songs become almost kaleidoscopic in nature, each second bringing about some new and brilliant sonic pattern. This is especially true with the vocal fragments. Valerie’s voice sounds just as lovely in its whole form as it does when Roby puts it through the ol’ slice n’ dice on his laptop.
“Fruitcake and Cookies” was one of the first tracks that caught my attention, and it still remains one of my favorites. The song takes its time assembling itself from bursts of static, eventually weaving a hypnotic tapestry of sleepy synths, fractured dulcimer-like strummings and pluckings (think Four Tet), and Valerie’s wistful vocals (which sound like they’re coming from several daydreams away).
“To All the Dancers of the World, A Round Form of Fantasy” finds Valerie’s voice cut and spliced over shimmering layers of glitchy programming, Ronnie Martin-esque analog squiggles, and drifting, Bows-like guitars (though you still have to wade through a bit of fluff at the song’s start).
Although the song kicks it into overdrive at one point, it’s primarily content to bubble and froth, churning and looping back on itself, and offering the listener a constantly changing sonic perspective. All in all, it’s one of the album’s finest tracks, culminating in a crescendo of bubbling electronics and My Bloody Valentine-esque guitars.
Although the album is primarily an electronic affair, the duo do drop in a handful of more guitar-oriented pop songs. From these, it’s obvious that Sweet Trip still hold a torch for all things shoegazer. “Dsco” is a beautiful and breezy pop number that laces MBV’s wall of noise with sparkling Stereolab-esque synths, while Roby and Valerie’s voices drift and sigh in unison.
The album closes with the Lush-inspired “Design : 2 : 3.” It starts off all fuzzy and noisy, goes through a psych-rock phase of rotating tones and lazy basslines, and ends with Roby and Valerie’s voices eventually merging amidst layers of fuzzed-out guitars and ringing vibes.
Despite a few missteps here and there, and the occasional lack of focus, Velocity : Design : Comfort still contains many stunning and lovely slices of electronic pop. It’s certainly far more accomplished and adventurous than I remember Halica being. What’s more, it takes what was Darla’s signature drum n’ bliss sound and gives it a healthy and heartfelt upgrade.
Now, does anyone know what Junior Varsity KM is up to these days?