Release Date: Jul 16, 2013
Record label: Captured Tracks
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Alternative Dance
Picture the scene. It's 4am. You’re stood in a dark room. Around you swarms of vodka-swigging future parents are moving their limbs erratically to the beat. What song is it? It doesn’t really matter, David Guetta? No. Calvin Harris maybe? Who cares? You just have to get out. You brush past the ….
With their sophomore effort, Lenses, Soft Metals succeed in whittling down their debut's brand of gloomy electronica into a more focused and less indulgently experimental style. The opening title track establishes a familiar formula, assembling meticulously textured percussion and synth lines, but rather than shift back and forth in mood and tone as on their previous effort, the new songs are more refined and coherent. The synth-pop duo's songwriting displays greater emotional depth and structure this time around as well, while Patricia Hall's reverb-laden purr no longer drifts languidly in and out of the dense instrumentation, but judiciously haunts individual tracks.
On their 2010 self-titled debut, Soft Metals freely crossed the unguarded borders that separate different realms of electronic music. They conceivably appealed to fans of both the transcontinental nights of Italians Do It Better’s roster and brave, unmapped frontiers in the underground dance scene, with nods to darkened warehouse discos, kraut endurance tests and straight-up experimental sounds. Despite this, there was a tendency to just lump Soft Metals with synth-pop also-rans, as if their association with Captured Tracks meant they were more akin to chillwave than Throbbing Gristle, whom they have notably covered.
Portland-by-way-of-Los-Angeles electro duo Soft Metals, aka Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks, suit their name down to the ground. Their music, occupying a space somewhere in between alternative synthpop and ambient house music, is gloopy and shiny like melted silver or beads of mercury; it’s difficult to grasp, poisonous despite its appealing polish. On their second album Lenses the band push their sound to dreamier and more sinister extremes than on their self-titled debut, released in 2011 but bearing the glossy fingerprints of the 1980s all over it.
The glamorous vibe Soft Metals exude on Lenses may or may not be due to Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks' move from Portland to L.A., but it's undeniable that their mix of dance and synth pop sounds more sophisticated here than it did on their self-titled debut. They tone down the playful experiments and cheap and cheerful keyboard sounds that gave Soft Metals an indie pop patina, opting for a sleek, slick palette that comes to the fore on instrumentals like "Interobserver," which closes the album in a cloud of synth arpeggios. Similarly, Lenses' beats are much more prominent and finely honed; "Tell Me," which boasts programming by Optimo's J.D.
Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks of the Los Angeles-based synth act Soft Metals approach their music with the loose conceptual framework of avant-garde sound artists rather than musicians. The duo, who started dating right around their band's formation, refer to Soft Metals albums as “works being commissioned” and stand apart from their boy-girl synth contemporaries like Kisses and Glass Candy, simply because their electronic compositions are several shades darker, stalking around ominously on the back of churning keyboards and drum machines, often without any discernable hook or cathartic crescendo. Their self-titled 2011 debut album had flashes of poppier aspirations amidst the busy distorted breakbeats and murky bedroom production, but those moments were almost always subverted by Hall’s ethereal, distant vocals and unnervingly detached lyrical persona.
Starting an arty electronic duo seems to be the thing for young, hip couples to do these days, like buying a tandem bicycle or a share in a CSA. Luckily for Soft Metals’ Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks, they have a knack for it. While Lenses sticks pretty close to familiar electro-pop territory, it’s eerie and unsettling enough to hold a listener’s attention.
Two years from its self-titled debut, this "synth-pop romance" has entered into a drab second phase. While the first album wasn't exactly built for the bumping masses of the dance floor, it had a cool, shifting vibe that borrowed from Italo disco and Italian horror; there were sections of Soft Metals as indebted to Dario Argento as to electronic dance music. This follow-up drops many of their cinematic aspects in favor of hazier, ambient numbers; Ian Hicks' racing, John Carpenter-esque synth riffs have been swapped for layers of shimmery, shapeless muck.
Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks first met at a party; Hicks was DJing and the pair were introduced through a mutual friend. They exchanged numbers and kept in touch, sending each other favoured music between their respective homes in Portland and San Francisco. When Hicks joined Hall in Portland, the two began making music together, initially recording covers of Throbbing Gristle and Siouxsie and the Banshees, before becoming Soft Metals and simultaneously, a couple, while working on their debut album.
Ever heard any Ladytron? Or College from the Drive soundtrack: that kind of smoky, affectless strain of kohl-eyed art-tronica? Well, to cut a long story short, what we have in Soft Metals’ second album is like that, only married with late ’80s/early ’90s dance music. And pretty snazzy it is too – so much more than just synth-pop with a house beat. In terms of cross-pollinating the two styles, the L.A.
Do you know the website Drinkify? It’s a site that suggests what hard drink would go well with what band you’re listening to. When listening to Soft Metals’ pungent sophomore album Lenses I might want to sip a real nice cognac or something equally pricey I can’t afford. I’d like something nice if I’m going to toast to my own existence. Singer Patricia Hall and composer Ian Hicks don’t veer far from the sound they established on their self-titled debut in 2011, but subject matter wise, they really pulled back the drapes as opposed to just opening the blinds on Lenses.
Soft Metals are too smart for their own good. ‘Lenses’, the pair’s follow up to their 2011 self-titled debut, includes a lot of nice sounds and clever references, but crucially, for the kind of noises they’re showing off, forgets to incite dancing. They’ve successfully fused a myriad of influences; the vintage synths so loved of Ian Hicks can’t help but evoke the pioneers of the late 70s and early 80s, while Patricia Hall’s well-spoken, ethereal, vocals are decidedly 90s alongside the VHS-esque artwork.