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Mr. Tophat - Dusk to Dawn Music Album Reviews

The Swedish producer and frequent Robyn collaborator offers an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes.
Hardcore Robyn fans already know the work of Swedish producer Rudolf Nordström, aka Mr. Tophat. He co-produced “Baby Forgive Me” and “Beach2k20,” two of the gorgeous, gently filtered house-pop tracks from last year’s Honey; his own 2017 release Trust Me, a three-song, 35-minute EP of throbbing, desaturated grooves, featured Robyn throughout. His latest solo release, Dusk to Dawn, is an ambitious three-album suite of understated, occasionally disquieting techno nocturnes. More melodic than the distortion-warped A Memoir From the Youth, two and a half hours of mostly chill, mid-tempo house conceal interesting moments within slack expanses. At its best, it’s a triple-album endurance listen that rewards partial concentration; at its slowest, it’s an illustration that Tophat’s signature long-format tracks don’t scale.

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Chastity - Death Lust Music Album Reviews

The proudly suburban Ontario band’s first album uses styles as different as indie pop, shoegaze, and post-hardcore to dramatize frontman Brandon Williams’ journey from despair to rage to resilience.

Brandon Williams, the lead singer and songwriter of Chastity, hails from Whitby, Ontario, part of the chain of suburbs that extends out from the eastern edge of Toronto. Like many suburbs, it’s a mishmash of affluent commuter communities sprouting with McMansions and older housing developments populated by working-class folk employed at the regional power plants and factories that serve the big city. And like many suburbs, it’s the sort of place where lacking a car is tantamount to living under house arrest, and where recreation for bored teenagers inevitably leads to some degree of criminal activity. When you’re a young misfit in a cultural desert, the usual knee-jerk reaction is to get the fuck out of town as soon as you can scrounge up the rent and decamp to the nearest urban center. But Williams has never harbored the desire to live downtown—and that lack of interest in cities isn't just because they've become so expensive. His natural response to suburban life isn’t to escape it, but to improve it.

There is, of course, no shortage of music that explores the dissociative effects of the suburbs, and how the postwar shift toward sprawl and big-box strip malls can breed problems—isolation, depression, cultural homogeneity—as severe as the inner-city ills that suburbanites sought to escape. But few artists have made their suburban upbringings as central to their musical identity as Williams. It forms the backdrop of several videos he’s released over the past few years—vibrant, visceral documents of wayward youth skateboarding through empty streets, pool-hopping, and partaking in scheduled street fights for a crowd of bloodthirsty classmates. It’s also the impetus behind his DIY promotional efforts, which include hosting shows in an old barn on the outskirts of Whitby and donating the proceeds to local mental-health support agencies. And it’s the geographic analog for a debut album that feels at once both expansive and suffocating.

Chastity’s early singles and EPs showcased an artist with the versatility to work in dramatically different modes, from brittle bedroom indie pop to stormy shoegaze to raging post-hardcore. These are the sort of oppositional styles that, 20 years ago, would have relegated followers to different high-school cafeteria tables. But the beauty of Death Lust lies in how Williams makes them all sound like part of the same continuum of disaffection, and how he approaches each mode with a pop songwriter’s ear for concision. Chastity's debut full-length is a brief album, with 10 songs clocking in at 31 minutes total, but the terrain it covers is vast. This is a record that begins with an intimate string-swept ballad and ends with a throat-shredding, circle-pit sermon—and yet, like a frog swimming in an increasingly hot pot of water, you barely notice the slide between those two poles.

More than just a showcase for Chastity’s musical fluidity, Death Lust charts Williams’ emotional journey from despair to rage to resilience. Even the length and positioning of his song titles reinforce the theme: Flip over to the album's back cover, and you’ll find an aerial photograph of a subdivision, overlaid with the album’s tracklist to form a cross. At first glance, the layout seems to equate the suburbs to a graveyard. But after listening to record, the cross invites a medical interpretation, hovering above a place where disenfranchised kids are in desperate need of community support.

Mental health has always been a recurring theme in Williams’ music, and Death Lust presents an unflinching glimpse into the mind of someone so tormented by anxiety and loss that they can only feel pleasure in fantasizing about ending it all. On the quivering opener, “Come,” Williams isn’t just eulogizing a departed friend, he’s making plans to join them on the other side. And amid the dreamy jangle of “Heaven Hell Anywhere Else,” he imagines just how he’d do it: “What would it feel like to fall/From the school, 60 feet tall,” he sings in a heavenly sigh, letting the song’s crystalline chorus serve as the safety net that brings him gently back down to earth. “Anoxia,” however, offers no such salve, its adrenalized punk thrust expressing an even more unsparing death wish: “Bury me between the guilty and filthy/Then hang me from the tallest tree in Whitby.”

Williams isn’t simply wallowing in his pain, however; he approaches it like a boxer working an inside game, getting up close as a means to better analyze and attack it. For all its sorrowful subject matter, Death Lust is an often rousing rock record that answers Williams’ disarming admissions with muscular displays of fortitude. “Suffer” and “Scary” erupt into monstrous grungegaze grooves that suggest the Smashing Pumpkins if they’d signed to Dischord and spent the ’90s playing basement shows. And even when Williams’ hardcore roots start to show on the album’s second side, the gnashed-teeth aggression functions as an all-out assault on his demons. Closing track “Chains” is a queasy exercise in churning Albini-core that climaxes with Williams’ most ferocious performance, but also his most sanguine sentiment: “Don’t waste your pain on hate,” he barks in its cathartic chorus, “Start your life outside the chains!” It’s not exactly a declaration of victory—trauma is like that horror-movie villain who can be warded off for a spell but never stays dead. But on an album whose most tranquil songs often reveal Williams’ most upsetting confessions, it’s only fitting that he finally achieves a moment of inner peace through a scream.

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