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Bliss Signal - Bliss Signal Music Album Reviews

A year after their onstage debut, the atmospheric black-metal survivor WIFE and grime experimentalist Mumdance join again to fuse pummeling beats with sheets of noise into a kind of transcendent fury.

At a moment when every midsize market seems to have at least one middling music festival, the most enduring events understand that mere stand-and-deliver sets from known quantities aren’t enough to jumpstart intrigue, let alone maintain it. If the question is how to stand out, the available answers are manifold: full-album performances, audacious premieres, unforeseen reunions, one-off collaborations, art installations in spectacular settings. During the last 15 years, Unsound—an especially adventurous experimental festival rooted in Poland but now with branches worldwide—has tried it all. For recent editions, they have helped propel a touring ballet and album by footwork disruptor Jlin and British choreographer Wayne McGregor and staged a Matmos performance of a Robert Ashley opera; in 2014, they even launched a line of perfumes created in concert with Tim Hecker, Ben Frost, and Kode9, and designed to accompany their music. In a landscape that is formulaic by industry design, Unsound epitomizes the idea that festivals can be about more than combining beers and bands to make money.

Bliss Signal are not the most shocking or unexpected project to stem from Unsound’s hallowed history, but the project’s 2017 Krakow debut did represent a reach across the aisles of distinct British niches. James Kelly emerged a decade ago as Altar of Plagues, an intoxicating atmospheric black-metal band that gave its complex song structures a slick electronic skin; Kelly soon inverted the idea as WIFE, a hard-edged electronic pop project built around a heavy-metal heart. As Mumdance, British producer Jack Adams has been a similarly brazen synthesist, grappling with harsh noise and hip-hop power above a stiffened electronic spine. His sense of repetitive propulsion and lurking melody has long suggested a spiritual kinship with heavy metal’s sweaty ecstasy. In retrospect, Kelly and Adams are nearby pieces of the same postmodern musical puzzle—fitting partners given the right circumstances, like an invitation and a stage at one of the world’s best festivals.

Their eight-track, full-length debut arrives almost exactly a year after that onstage premiere and systematically checks each of the duo’s requisite boxes: For “Floodlight,” a hangman riff frames a concussive beat before they merge into a racing industrial wallop. For “Surge,” pummeling techno becomes a blast-beat surrogate, the pulse furious beneath a sheer black-metal façade. There is a pensive intro that drops a sonar signal into subaqueous hum, an interlude of soft drone and whirring static, and an expansive outro that feels like a deep breath exhaled with eyes closed and chin skyward.

The best moments on Bliss Signal—when Adams’ circuits flip Kelly’s riff upside down during “Tranq,” or every time the beat recoils and releases during the title track—hinge more on force than finesse. In fact, these 30 minutes feel like a blaze of glory for one spin, maybe two, overwhelming you the way Salem’s King Night might have. But as with that largely forgotten crew, repeated listens don’t yield the depth of peers like, say, Tim Hecker, Andy Stott, or Maja Ratkje. Bliss Signal doesn’t produce the lasting despair of labelmate and clear predecessor Prurient (it does seem at times like his Cocaine Death, reimagined as a maze of locked grooves), the ascendant beauty of the Hafler Trio, or the transcendent motion of M83. You can hear traces of all that throughout Bliss Signal, and they are entirely tantalizing. But they never coalesce into a cohesive sound, never rising past fury into a singular identity.

Aside from the occasional deluge of gray-shaded deliverance, what’s best about Bliss Signal might be its keen sense of promise—the potential that remains in ideas left unfulfilled and detours left untaken. At less than five minutes, “Endless Rush” doesn’t pursue the implied infinity of its name. A fluorescent glow slowly rises, with Kelly and Adams pulling a steadily escalating beat taut beneath it. Listening feels like watching the pages of some massive flipbook fly by, knowingly waiting for an end you hope never comes. The song fades away too soon, the sad whimper at the end of an exciting life cut short. I want to hear them shape a piece like this over the course of an hour, teasing out its every nuance much like the Necks. And only for the exquisite finale, “Ambi Drift,” do Bliss Signal add vocals. They use Kelly’s arced falsetto as a sort of curved steel beam, the anchor around which they hang spiderwebbed distortion and noise that crackles like the embers of an eternal campfire. It recasts Sigur Rós, suddenly aiming for hell rather than heaven. The song lingers at album’s end like an alluring ellipsis, suggesting there’s more but not guaranteeing it. Here’s hoping there is.

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