Review : Tomas Barfod - Salton Sea
ResidentadvisorChances are, if you know Tomas Barfod at all, it's from his kinda-electro, kinda-disco, kinda-indie-rock band WhoMadeWho, most recently seen on Kompakt. But the Danish producer recently made a move to Los Angeles, where he found himself in contact with Friends of Friends' boss Leeor Brown. Friends of Friends have previously released the depressive hip-hop of Shlohmo and the anything-goes pastiche of Salva, but Salton Sea—also Barfod's debut solo album—is the most explicitly house thing the label has put out yet. In typical fashion, it's not very typical.
There's a liveliness and vivacity to Salton Sea that links up with label mate Shlohmo's pastoral murmurings and Ernest Gonzales' still life portraits. These aren't tracks made with drum machines and old synths (not entirely anyway). They sound as if they're built out of sticks and rubber, like the toy store percussion on "Baxter St" or the lolling mallet riff on "Till We Die." It's a house (or maybe techno) album in spirit—you wouldn't mistake the chugging arpeggiated bassline or strobelight drumming in storming opener "D.S.O.Y." for anything else, nor the labourious disco stomp of "Came To Party." But it's also so many other things, favouring climactic build ("Nighthawke") over a steady pulse, or a good vocal melody over a repetitive chord progression.
Perhaps reflecting his tenure in a bona fide rock band, Salton Sea features genuine pop songs and not mere token attempts, the stuff of persistent and virulent earworms. Swedish singer Nina Kinert steals the show, sweetening the bumpy ride of "Till We Die" and layering euphoria on a dangerously infectious ascent with "November Skies." The latter rises and rises on that same tactile percussion as "Baxter St," propped up by glistening rays of sunlight while Kinert's vocals are inflated with reverb. It's a completely unabashed reach for pure musical bliss that shouldn't work as well as it does, just as the theatrical string breakdown in "Don't Under" would be overcooked and melodramatic in anyone else's hands.
The other thing Salton Sea has over other dance albums is its elegant pacing; ebbing wisely between human vocal and programmed rigidity, there's an effortlessness to the affair. Whether it's when the speedy opener spills over into the woozy, sun-burned stumble of "Broken Glass" or the roller-coaster ride through the album's hallucinatory ending run of "Aether," "Nighthawke" and "Python"—one rushing-rapid of liquid synth after another—Salton Sea feels engineered for eminent listenability....full text
SsgmusicBlockbuster movies often curate soundtracks to fit their plot line, but what if an album already has its own story to tell? Salton Sea paints the picture of a dystopian world where Tomas Barfod holds an uprising that promises an idyllic future. Between the heavy bass lines and distortion you feel the angst and corruption of a repressed society. The steel drums, cowbells and pop vocals showcase the hope and optimistic state of mind in Barfod’s followers.
Tomas Barfod (Whomadewho) has long been on the electronica radar with various collaborations and remixes of artists like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. Barfod has put out previous solo work via Kitsune, Turbo, and now Friends of Friends with Salton Sea. The album provides a diverse mix of pop hits, featuring elements of 8-bit blips with an island funk fusion that contribute to the dance vibe you find throughout.
Salton Sea features little vocals or lyrics but when they are used they pack a punch. Such is so with “Broken Glass,” “Only Human” and “Till We Die.” While the same few lines of lyrics are repeated throughout “Broken Glass,” the simplicity is intensified by the robotic vocals. The styling musters up the dystopian vision where robots have human emotions and can feel pain:”I tip toe into broken glass/ It hurts like hell/ I torture the past.” Three-quarters through the song is a clip of glass breaking and the rhythm becomes upbeat, making you wonder if the robot living in that dystopian world has broken free. “Only Human” is one of the stand out songs on the album and is only available on the digital version as a bonus. The song brings forth the prevalent island style of Salton Sea. “Only Human” will be the anthem for the summer; full of hand claps, auto-tune and island fusion.
The over-tuned vocals paired with the hip-hop beats in “Came To Party” fall short on Barfod’s creativity. While the album is eclectic, this song doesn’t fit. The vocals are also in a robotic fashion, similar to “Broken Glass” but with more baritone. Barfod grunts during the song while repeating “Everybody/Came to party” turning his typically unique song into just another electro-dance single with a hip-hop beat. “Aether” is another vanilla electronica song. While it is not required to have vocals to make a song unique, the instrumental “Aether” is highly indistinguishable and almost an afterthought on Salton Sea. The organ-esque synth is, however, a fantastic lead-in to the Gregorian chanting of “Nighthawke.”...full text
PitchforkTomas Barfod is a drummer, which means that even if he never lifted a finger to hammer out a dance tune, he'd be considered a beatmaker in the most basic sense. As it turns out, he does quite a bit of both: In addition to handling kit duties for the angular electro-pop outfit WhoMadeWho, Barfod's been knob-twiddling for the past decade and change, both on his own and with fellow Danish countryman Kasper Bjørke as Filur.
His proper solo debut, Salton Sea, finds him tightrope-walking the increasingly smaller gap between man and machine. Drum programming shares space with the organic, individual physicality that comes with being a percussionist; one moment there's a thick, fuzzy backbeat rubbing against your ears, and the next you might be grooving to what sounds like crisp cymbals and snares, controlled by a flesh-and-blood metronomic instinct. The album sounds handmade in every sense of the word, possessing a sense of intimacy even at its grandest moments.
A word about WhoMadeWho: The trio released four albums (the most recent being this year's solid, overlooked Kompakt collection Brighter), each possessing a loose, in-the-studio charm where mechanized ballads share equal billing with, say, a snarling post-punk cover of Benny Benassi's macho-electro anthem "Satisfaction". There's nothing quite as cheeky on Salton Sea, but a sense of homespun playfulness is definitely present, as Barfod hops from Morr Music-esque music-box glitch pop ("Broken Glass") to sweeping spacey electro ("Python") to tense, hair-raising house ("Till We Die") with a wide-eyed confidence.
That confidence is bolstered by Barfod's indulgent generosity, since Salton Sea runs long, with only three cuts finishing below the five-minute point and a total running time that cracks an hour in length. Look past the occasional bloat, though, and you'll find that another important lesson Barfod's taken away from playing in a relatively pop-focused band is a sense of pacing. The record's A-B-A-B sequencing (vocal cut, instrumental, vocal cut, instrumental) lends it a nice perpetual swelling motion.
The album's pop-leaning sparklers are its clearest highlights, perfectly constructed as proper songs. "November Skies" is a heady rush of a tune that, thanks to a perpetually aerial vocal from Swedish singer Nina Kinert, crests on a steady, gauzy lightness while maintaining enough weight that it doesn't float away. WhoMadeWho guitarist Jeppe Kjellberg provides the wizened voice that gets twisted and spat out on "Broken Glass", but it's his vocal take on "Don't Understand" that makes for the album's most surprising moment, when his fragile falsetto hits six disco spins on the way down from the song's disorienting climactic burst. The record's most oblong instrumental cuts make similar use of building and breaking tension-- "Aether" especially, as its clanging swarm of synth noise dissolves into a diorama foregrounded by welcome emptiness-- but they just don't stick to the brain as well as the vocal showcases, both due to a comparative lack of melodic hookiness and, in the case of opener "D.S.O.Y.", Barfod's occasional tendency to create tracks that are simply content to spin in place....full text
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