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The Blaze - Dancehall Music Album Reviews

On their debut album, Guillaume and Jonathan Alric make big, staid dance music tailored for main stages at music festivals where subtlety falls victim to the pursuit of big moments.

Guillaume and Jonathan Alric, the cousins behind French duo the Blaze, aim for big themes on Dancehall. The very first sounds you hear are piano chords so rich and full you want to wrap yourself up in them like a very expensive coat. The bass throughout is among the heaviest you’ll hear on any record this year, yet it never sounds ugly or rough. Even at its most forceful, the Blaze’s music never bangs you over the head; it’s enveloping, like a wave.

But their insistence upon capturing great passion works against them. For one thing, there’s not a lot of variation on the album: Virtually every song rolls out a boom-ticking drum machine beat and drapes it in sumptuous synths and pulsing 808 toms; their grooves rarely budge from the syncopated cadence handed down by classic piano-house anthems like “Strings of Life,” filtered through heartstring-tugging bass musicians like James Blake and SBTRKT. And you can make out the outlines of their songwriting from a mile away: First comes the pensive intro; then the drop, and a surging build until the track’s end. This is music tailored for the main stages at music festivals where subtlety falls victim to the pursuit of big moments, where only the punchiest, boomiest, most obviously emotive sounds are accommodated. Even Dancehall’s sonics evoke the sound and feel of the festival experience, with low-end that threatens to overwhelm the bass cabinets and overdriven mids that run together in a kind of ooze.

Also gloopy: the vocals. As they were on Territory, their debut EP, the Blaze’s vocals tend to sound like they’ve been pitched down by 10 or 15 percent—not enough to make them sound like Salem or DJ Screw, but just enough that they don’t quite sound natural, either. Who knows why they keep doing this. Perhaps they simply like the way it tends to thicken the sound of their voices, like a dark liqueur chilled toward the freezing point—it’s a deeply embodied sound, suggestive of throats and lumps in throats. Perhaps they’re compensating for their weaknesses as singers, in which case, not a bad idea: They can indeed be pretty pitchy. On “She,” an untreated near-falsetto recalls Robert Smith’s quavering wail, but where the Cure frontman’s yelp feels like an essential part of his band’s desperate, unhinged mien, the curdled sound of “She” just sounds cartoonish.

It doesn’t help that their attempt to capture big emotions too often verges on caricature. From “Breath”: “You’re my reason/In this wonderful life/A super weapon/For stopping the fight.” Do I need to tell you that they go on to get “sight” and “light” in there? Elsewhere, “Trust in me” is rhymed with “Set me free”; “Crazy and insane” finds its match in “Forgetting the pain.” It’s all a bit much, especially when combined with such rafter-shaking, breast-beating grooves. At the same time, it’s nothing at all: a placeholder for a sentiment with any actually meaningful resonance. Coming up with something to say would do more to rescue their vocals than the most CPU-intensive pitch-correction software.

What’s frustrating is that the Alrics have proven themselves to be talented filmmakers. With their eyes trained on young French people of color, they specialize in moody treatments of youthful passions, star-crossed lovers, communities thriving as the world breaks down. Their skill lies in sketching out a certain provocative ambiguity: What kind of couple is this? What is their history? Is this a story of love or anger? And, most importantly, what kinds of truths can be expressed without words? It’s a shame that their music doesn’t capture anything near that level of nuance. Too often, it’s a simulacrum of passion: feel-good house music as daily affirmation. Unlike the broad scope of their videos, their songs feel squashed, like an inspirational message made for Instagram’s tiny window.

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