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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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Virginia Wing - Ecstatic Arrow Music Album Reviews

Virginia Wing - Ecstatic Arrow Music Album Reviews
On their third album of avant-garde synth pop, Alice Merida Richards and Sam Pillay eschew protest language and the depressing status quo to conjure a vision of feminist utopia.

A recent tour supporting Hookworms pushed Virginia Wing over the edge. Frustrated by the progressive psychedelic band’s incongruously laddy crowds, the Manchester synth-pop duo performed the rest of their dates against a hot pink projection that read: “END RAPE CULTURE.” Unsurprisingly, Alice Merida Richards and Sam Pillay’s message made some audiences bristle even more than the initial offenders had—and that message is in keeping with their third album, to a fashion. In a few barbed moments, Ecstatic Arrow skewers the failed promise of a supposedly enlightened independent music culture: “No half-baked program just for show,” Richards coolly declares, on “Pale Burnt Lake,” of bills that pay lip service to inclusion. But the pair generally eschews protest language and the depressing status quo, choosing instead to propose a captivating vision of utopia.

Ecstatic Arrow is an album of fresh starts. Richards and Pillay recorded in the Swiss Alps, and while the connection between location and sound is often spurious, there is a heady clarity to the album that you might describe as “alpine” if that word hadn’t been ruined by men’s shower gel. Koto sparkles; swathes of synthesizer mist descend, then break, allowing incandescent pop choruses to break through; and the pair create ashram lusciousness from icy machines. Virginia Wing’s is an understated but familiar scramble of mid-’80s pop at its most avant-garde—Laurie Anderson’s sprechgesang, Peter Gabriel and Japan’s chilly hauteur; Kate Bush’s imposing dynamic and Malcolm McLaren’s impish reinvention—so if Ecstatic Arrow doesn’t feel quite like stepping into a new world, it at least returns us to an unspoiled glade.

Especially since hype tends to peak early in an artist’s career and then tail off, it’s a pleasure to hear a band bloom on their third record. Virginia Wing’s earlier releases could be ornery and open-ended, but the songs on Ecstatic Arrow are full of the playful pop resolve that Phoenix pull off so handsomely. “The Female Genius” starts with Richards questioning the disconnect she feels as synthy twinkles with more than a passing resemblance to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” glint off the prowling bass. When she mocks perceptions that she is a pliant entity ready to “follow instruction disguised as suggestion,” the tone becomes robotic—which might be too on the nose if it didn’t break into such a luminous chorus, one that reaches defiantly for the future. “Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day” is similarly subversive. Its bucolic-milkmaid innocence is charming, but Virginia Wing use this puritan mode to dismiss the draining rigmarole of work and preconceived ideas about the right way to live. “There’s no tomorrow,” Richards sings. “Only today.”

There are carpe-diem moments on Ecstatic Arrow, like the punky polyrhythms of “Glorious Idea,” which lurch thrillingly between harsh, sparkling textures and degrees of intensity that oppress and release. But Virginia Wing aren’t interested in scorching the earth so much as changing the future. The first line on the album is, “Tell me, where do you go from here?”

As part of her immaculate vision, Richards attempts to divest herself of her gendered inheritance of silence and self-doubt, and she sketches the imbalance between men’s and women’s influence over public spaces in surreal, pin-sharp imagery. “I can’t provide a bench or sofa to recline/Soft furnishings feel hard when the space is confined,” she sings on “Glorious Idea.” She coins funny, surreal koans about how intentions can be misinterpreted (“You reach far with your hands/But the hands that you use are just flowers in bloom wearing gloves to confuse,” she sings on “Relativity”) but then disturbs her neat themes. On “Seasons Reversed,” Richards expresses surprise that she never noticed how conditioning had turned her into “a delicate object under a frame,” and proposes an brisk escape: “I don’t demand a violent scene/But blood in your mouth might feel like relief.” A stark bass thump highlights the pulse she might strike, and imagining the stain spread on their previously clean palette is a thrill.

Ecstatic Arrow is full of declarations delivered with such lucid certainty that they make a brighter future seem persuasively simple: “Just one full day and one perfect thought to begin again like nothing came before,” Richards sings on “Pale Burnt Lake,” amid a beautiful, looping melody. Of course, it’s not that simple. Nor is making a feminist synth-pop album that feels genuinely revelatory. But Virginia Wing make utopia feel within reach.

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