Chromatics formed in the Pacific Northwest as a rickety no-wave band more than a decade ago, but re-emerged in the mid-2000s with a revamped lineup and a new sound that nicely coincided with a resurgence of interest in the slow, dreamy, not-always-Italian dance-pop subgenre known as Italo disco. As with other acts on New Jersey-based Italians Do It Better, a label co-founded by group mastermind Johnny Jewel, Chromatics didn't just incorporate the vocoders and vintage synth arpeggios of the turn-of-the-1980s originals, they added the brittle guitars, dubby reverb, and urban dread of post-punk.
In the years since, the label's emphasis on grainy synths, smokey ambience, and analog-fetishizing textures became the M.O. of an entire class of artists. And the band's 2007 Night Drive set the blueprint for last year's Nicolas Winding Refn-directed thriller Drive; featuring two Jewel-assisted tracks, the film's soundtrack exposed this music to a wider audience. Earlier this year, Jewel built on that momentum by releasing a two-hour epic created with fellow Chromatics member Nat Walker. Titled Symmetry, Themes for an Imaginary Film, the set culled material from a full score that the duo were said to have composed for Drive.
Kill for Love, Chromatics' first album since Night Drive, finally gives this loosely associated, prematurely decayed musical aesthetic its magnum opus-- and brilliantly transcends it. The moonlit vibe of previous highlights like street-skulking stunner "In the City" or haunting Kate Bush cover "Running Up That Hill" recurs, and various tracks still crackle and pop with the all-too-mortal degradation of vinyl. And despite the unfinished-seeming recording quality of the music videos that preceded the album's release, the completed product also boasts some of the most engrossing synth-pop songs so far this year.
The 90-minute Kill for Love signals its tour-de-force ambitions from the opening track, a synth-draped cover of Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)". As with their past brooding renditions of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" or Dark Day's "Hands in the Dark", it's a thoroughly rewarding pop deconstruction, setting one of singer Ruth Radelet's most affecting performances against an evocatively restrained backdrop. "There's more to the picture than meets the eye," Radelet coos, in what emerges here as a key lyric. There's more to Kill for Love than the sum of its best songs.
That said, Kill for Love's clearest improvement over Night Drive comes in its impressive clutch of left-field synth-pop standouts. The pill-dropping insomniac rush of the title track is the most likely to propel Chromatics onto the kinds of late-night TV stages and festival billings lately seized by M83, but the existential ache of "Back From the Grave" is no less gorgeously catchy. The bleakly yearning "Lady" returns to the group's signature Italo glide but wisely ditches the robotic vocal effects of a previously released late-2005 recording. When Jewel suggested in a recent Pitchfork interview that he was more influenced by Madonna than by crate-digging Eurodisco rarities, it was logical to wonder if he was being falsely modest. That is, until hearing "These Streets Will Never Look the Same", which stretches "Eye of the Tiger"-like guitar tension into an eight-minute treatise on loneliness and includes the album's first male lead vocal, rendered cyborg-like by a vocal harmonizer. Or take the vampire-pallid lament "Running From the Sun", another male-led track, based on piano chords reminiscent of those found on Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time". Fans who discovered Chromatics through Drive will find plenty of easy entry points here.
Still, just as the pop songs on Kill for Love are more direct than on Night Drive, the interstitial tracks are also more expansive and abstract. "Time is stretching on/ And it keeps repeating/ As the beat goes on," Radelet sings, on the deceptively uptempo last-ditch plea "At Your Door", and those words could just as easily apply to the album's instrumentals (and near-instrumentals). Nevertheless, even the record's most ephemeral moments are more deeply engaging than their equivalents on the last album, livened up by disembodied vocals and orchestral touches. Though there appear to be as many references to walking and riding trains as to driving, the album is at least as cinematic as Themes for an Imaginary Film. In fact, the languorous "There's a Light Out on the Horizon" goes so far as to revive Night Drive's phone-call conceit, though with results that are more beautifully agonizing.
After a front-loaded opening and sprawling, bewitching midsection, Kill for Love resurfaces with two tracks that encapsulate what Chromatics do, in an uncompromising way that's sure to confound as many people as it awes. "The River" reprises the Symmetry album's nearly a cappella closing track as glacial synth-pop, with finger snaps and artificial strings lending emotional support to Radelet's stiff-lipped vocal performance as a woman left behind. And then there's a sparsely forbidding 14-minute instrumental finale, available on the digital versions of the album, which is appropriate of Jewel's recent tendency to talk up 20th-century classical composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage rather than film scorers like John Carpenter.
If Kill for Love had been a 10-track LP, with its most immediately striking songs each edited down to around 3 minutes, it would've still been impressive. In fact, as recently as an interview posted last month by Self-Titled, Jewel hadn't yet made up his mind about whether to put out one or two discs. Ultimately, he made the right choice. Closer "No Escape" may not be as immediate as the title track when heard in isolation, but luckily, we don't have to listen to it in isolation. Just as on albums by the War on Drugs, Deerhunter, and countless others, the experimental interludes here help create a context that makes the pop songs that much more effective; by including so many mood-oriented parts, Kill for Love paradoxically rises above hazy synth-pop's occupational hazard of dissolving into a blur of mood and mood alone. It's not just a collection of hits; it's an album, one that gives the project's familiar nocturnal foreboding a new sense of grandeur.
1. Into The Black
2. Kill For Love
3. Back From The Grave
4. The Page
6. These Streets Will Never Look The Same
7. Broken Mirrors
9. The Eleventh Hour
10. Running From The Sun
11. Dust To Dust
12. Birds Of Paradise
13. A Matter Of Time
14. At Your Door
15. There's A Light Out On The Horizon
16. The River
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