xeno

In an excerpt from the recent modular synthesizer documentary I Dream of Wires, an extended studio interview with Sean McBride reveals a cluttered backdrop of analogue hardware and synths, dominating a room otherwise populated by scores of flashing bulbs, mangled wires, and innumerable switches.

Since their beginnings in 2004, McBride and Liz Wendelbo have worked as a duo developing a characteristic sound rooted in this image of eminent devotion to analogue means. Whilst the sheer throng of machine and circuitry in this instance suggests infinite permutation and range, the duo have stressed their commitment to the limitation of what could be translated with these tools live, with both of them as operators keen on exploring within that restriction.

On this, their latest LP, the order as well as the character of their sound hasn’t changed. Often the mood achieved is cold and uncanny, and bound to fast tempos made up of chattering percussion. There are synth lines that seem self-regulatory in their mechanistic flurry of arpeggios, like a futuristic conception of some autonomous harpsichord. You can hear this especially on what accompanies the chorus on ‘Par Avion’, which leads into a phantom, burbling squeal after establishing an intoxicatingly dark chug, and on ‘Sheen’, which lightens and furnishes a muggy, venomous acid-gloop with scintillating paranoia and later something icily romantic.

This often-elaborate trademark reveals the tracings of a classical background, one McBride was privy to, before finding a trove of synths in an electronic music lab at university. This may be the hint as to why these tracks feel overly adorned. It sounds like classical virtuosity is being applied to early modern technology, but the way in which it’s executed here doesn’t turn out favourably. When stripped back and at a slower pace a stride is hit as in the initial stages of the instances mentioned, but this is weighed down in these tracks later developments, and all too often elsewhere.

Within this elsewhere, over the top of McBride’s often frantic frame, Wendelbo emits dreamy vocal passages (often sung in French) whilst intersecting her own manipulations. Her own work as a visual artist seems to feed in to the X & O output, with her ‘Cold Cinema’ films (which are filmed using similarly old gear – 8mm, 16mm cameras and the like) sharing a stark, distorted and hypnotic imagery. The cover art of ‘Par Avion’ is actually taken from her Opticks films, which imagine the immediate realities (light and sound) of Isaac Newton’s surroundings during the discoveries he would record in the 1704 book of the same name. Providing insight into this work a few years back, Wendelbo connected it with X & O directly, citing ‘gear fetishism’ as a dominant deduction in each project. This, as well as the taste for hyper-elaboration, might reveal why it’s hard to really fall for their latest LP.

For all the promise of their respective backgrounds (Mcbride’s discernible knowledge, Wendelbo’s interdisciplinary openness, and the shared ardour they possess for their tools), ‘Par Avion’ still proves underwhelming.

With ideas and concepts centred around the phenomenon of synaesthesia and airmail postcards (the title translates as ‘by plane’ – a note previously reserved for airmail post sent from exotic places) it all looks promising on paper. But it feels like the ‘fetishism’ has taken precedence over the substantive quality of the songs. Along with the title track and ‘Sheen’, ‘Reflections’ is an exception to the rule; an interesting departure of dolorous, nauseous, industrial smoulder. But frankly the songs don’t seize anything as remotely extraordinary or affectingly mysterious and romantic as the concepts cited.

What the duo produce elsewhere doesn’t feel animated, it lacks verve. ‘G. Bruno’ makes a promising approach towards this, with the punchier slugs and pecking sequence of a drum machine brought to the fore and overdone, serpentine synth parts kept to a minimum, but the rest of the time it feels like they’re placidly coasting, reaching for something complex, unreal and shadowy whilst actually attaining something muzzled, forgettable and desultory. Maybe on this occasion they’re too subservient to their infatuation with their tools.

For the most part, the whole thing speeds by, unremarkably indistinguishable from past and present projects of this ilk. The mood is somewhere between a dark sulk and an uncanny anxiety, occasionally successful in connoting something premonitory. However any concerted pressure or intensity is anesthetized. Disappointing, considering this is their 3rd full length effort, as the duo have been around longer than most, essentially enduring two periods of insurgent ‘minimal synth’ revivalism.

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