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Âme - Dream House Music Album Reviews

Âme - Dream House Music Album Reviews
The Berlin tech-house duo’s debut album purports to expand its palette, but an impressive list of collaborators can’t keep the music from lapsing into middle-of-the-road anonymity.

It’s hard to remember, but the oft-overlapping genres known as tech house and minimal were once bastions of experimental dance music. As the 1990s bled into the first decade of the new millennium, producers like Richie Hawtin, Akufen, Cassy, and Levon Vincent explored a lean, groundbreaking hybrid of techno’s futurism and house’s funk. Sturdy, endless grooves bolstered druggy detours, glitchy hiccups, and startling ambiguity. Breakout star Ricardo Villalobos matched DJ celebrity with a recorded output of tunneling vortexes, hour-plus-long remixes of folk melodies, and feverish mirages. He was recognized for his efforts with a cover story in The Wire, his name next to Whitehouse and Laurie Anderson.

But as the aughts drew on, a sense of futility crept into the party. The music’s immaculate strangeness began to seem fussy and irrelevant as dubstep, grime, and rawer strains of techno came to the fore. It was at this crossroads that Innervisions, the label run by Berlin’s Dixon and Âme, stepped in. Their output cleaned away the freaky debris of minimal, bolstered the production to soundsystem-rattling perfection, and coated everything in a warm, welcoming glaze. Their signature has been one of the most influential in modern dance music: Resident Advisor’s readers repeatedly voted Dixon as the No. 1 DJ of the year, and EDM’s flirtation with four-on-the-floor piggybacks directly on the smooth, crowd-pleasing drops Innervisions perfected. If the label remains a template for dance music’s current mainstream, the duo Âme arguably embody one of the most distilled iterations of that formula. Now, 14 years since their first release, they are releasing Dream House, their debut album.

Âme made a name for themselves with tracks like “Rej” and “Balladine”: monstrously effective dancefloor bombs that built shamelessly towards huge moments but were tinged with just enough melancholy to keep things tasteful. Dream House, however, is billed as an expansion of their voice. Moving away from the club, the record draws an eye-grabbing list of collaborators, including Matthew Herbert, Cluster founder Roedelius, German art-punk veteran Gudrun Gut, and Planningtorock, and attempts 11 mood pieces, genre workouts, and studio experiments. Like all their work, Dream House sounds expensive and carefully constructed. It’s also punishingly square.

The record suffers from a false binary which remains endemic in dance music: the questionable idea that fun, energetic work should be saved for 12”s while albums are reserved for Serious Artistic Statements. The press release for Dream House explains that it’s “an evocative home listening journey,” as if no one ever listened to energetic music at home. It’s an absurd proposition—imagine Metallica crafting Kill ‘Em All or Yoko Ono prepping Plastic Ono Band deciding to tone it down for “home listening.”

Of course, Âme aren’t obligated to rev their motors if they aren’t in the mood, but Dream House is so bereft of substance that you sense the duo backed into these tracks via mood boards and career strategization rather than genuine inspiration. There’s not a wrong note on the entire album, yet nothing leaps out at you either. It’s a polite wave of empty gestures and aesthetic nods, neither demanding to be heard nor allowing you to be overwhelmed.

The duo draws from Can’s humid wiggle, EBM’s primitive futurism, Pet Shop Boys’ studio perfection, Tangerine Dream’s layered arpeggiations, and "Miami Vice"’s steely soundtrack. These influences could suggest an arty cruise through the 1980s, but Âme’s years of big-room gigs don’t fall away so easily. Everything winds up tech-housed in the end. Sometimes it’s harmless, as on the perfectly lovely chillwave instrumental “Futuro Antico,” but elsewhere things get rough. Herbert, the loungey dark prince of minimal, layers his vocals on “The Line”: “Still just sitting around,” he croons over a melodramatic builder that could pass for the Chainsmokers on a Peter Gabriel binge; “it would be a curious thing if I felt the fury was real.” This from the guy who once sampled a pig being killed to raise “complex questions about our relationship to these often-maligned and misunderstood creatures.” Meanwhile, “No War” loops its title with insulting banality, as if Âme were blithely proposing world peace over oat milk cappuccinos.

Mostly though, Dream House is simply anonymous to the point of invisibility. Heard in a clothing shop or a commercial, you wouldn’t notice a thing, but that’s just the rub. The duo spent three years on this album, and in that time scrubbed it clean of almost any identifying marks or glimpses of spontaneity. In the group’s bio, they describe their music as “strumming at your heartstrings.” This isn’t a good thing. If Âme wanted to make a truly serious artistic statement, they could have risked looking ugly, weird, or uncool. Instead, Dream House forsakes even the grandiose manipulations of their EPs for a placid, empty surface. It looks good on paper. It will sound nice while you cook dinner. Then you’ll forget you ever heard it.

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