The shoegaze revival that many thought could never happen is still in the process of snowballing as it rolls onward through yet another decade. From ambient meanderings to ear-bleeding noise terrorism, the fabled Sonic Cathedrals of some 20 years hence are being re-inhabited and plundered by more acts than you could shake a telephone directory at. What might happen if a band were to cast their dragnet into an even murkier world, though? Namely, that of 80’s synth pop?
I know, MBV meets OMD may well sound like an aberration waiting to happen, and the commercial indie purgatory has churned out more than its fair share of parodic 1980’s tainted effluence. However, New Orleans droners Belong somehow seem to have sent their creative minds on a trip to northern England, at a time when post-punk and prototype synths were colliding beneath the smog of dying industries, yet amalgamated it wholesale into their maelstrom of maximum-noise minimalism. Common Era is, in some alternate reality of its own creation, Belong’s pop album.
This seems bizarre, considering the whole shebang rides on electronic drumbeats that sound like they originated as the preset on a kid’s Bontempi keyboard, and, aside from electric bass, guitars and other vestiges of contemporary cool have been almost totally phased out in favour of free-flowing, swooshing synths, channelled through a cornucopia of effects. Though there are strong vocal hooks, they are hollered at you from the opposite side of a decidedly un-Spector-ish wall of sound. Quite obviously, it’s no great stab at commercial glory. In some ways Common Era is so basic as to seem troglodytic, yet atop these bare foundations they lay arrangements and vocal melodies that are, for want of a better adjective, catchy as hell.
You wouldn’t necessarily know it to listen to opener ‘Come See’, though. A squall of white noise screeching at you as if fired down a wind tunnel, with a deluge of background feedback that represents probably the only recognisable guitar sound on the album, it powers into your skull over a snapping snare. Once it’s there it soars upward into what might be called a chorus, but is more like an exploding firework of beautiful, crystalline chords shifting into one another. It may be more strictly ‘shoegaze’ than almost any other track here, and by no means sets the full precedent, but, as a way to kick off proceedings, it takes some beating.
Second song ‘Never Came Close’ is more of an accurate pointer toward the general dynamic of the album. Though it shares DNA with post-punk, it’s basic arrangement shimmers and swoops above a lush bed of sound, surging into a massive chorus that seems like a wonderful, ghostly distortion of the pervasive 80’s obsession. In a parallel universe this would be a huge single, by sheer virtue of being a damn good song.
It’s hard to pick genuine standouts here, as Belong’s singular sound pervades everything to the extent that the album is like one smooth ride through a beautiful, yet icy landscape. However, there are some staggering peaks reached en route, not least ‘Perfect Life’, with it’s drumbeat redolent of Joy Division’s ‘Disorder’ played one handed, and it’s murky synth bass figure juxtaposing a lustrous lead part, or ‘Different Hearts’, pop to its very core, gliding gracefully over itself whilst somehow still pumping like a rush of blood, all capped by a vocal that would sound heartfelt were it intelligible.
On the ambient side, the stunning ‘Keep Still’ dispenses with the programmed beat altogether, plunging into a deep-sea world where ghostly choirs call you from shipwrecks, and the only light fans out eerily from the surface way above. In a similar, otherworldly vein, the title track takes the listener into the heart of some huge machine, the omnipresent humming coalescing into melodies as a distant voice echoes off the metal innards.
For me, though, the pinnacle would have to be the jaw-dropping ‘Make Me Return’, a dark, seething mass of sonic surreality, its synths ebbing in waves, peaking occasionally and descending gracefully over the grinding maelstrom somewhere deep beneath. As a song, it doesn’t particularly go anywhere or do anything, but the sheer sound of it is as close to perfection as Belong get on this album.
Though I’d have a hard time explaining precisely why, there’s something stunning about Common Era, amazing considering its constituent parts. Though essentially simple, this album is not only effective, but highly affecting, incorporating moments of heavenly beauty and crushing weight into a masterful experiment in melody. Certainly, it’s a curious approach for Belong to take, but let’s just hope it serves them well.
(Released 21st March 2011 on Kranky)