Review: We Were Drifting on a Sad Song by Sleep Party People

Maybe there’s something about northern Europe’s frozen expanses that inspires people to dress themselves up in inexplicable costumes, sit down in front of a vocoder and make some of the best electronic music to date. Whatever weirdness we may claim here in the States, it pales away to nothing when you look at what’s trickled out from the EDM scenes of England, Iceland, Sweden, and now Denmark.

Not that donning a rabbit mask and shredding your voice through a computer program is especially remarkable or even subversive all on its own. But couple the vague charm of that childhood Halloween imagery with downright explosive pop songwriting, and you’ve got one of the more interesting electronica acts to emerge from the frigid tip of the earth in recent memory.

Brian Batz, performing as Sleep Party People, received some minor viral circulation with his debut’s leading track “I’m Not Human At All”. The song’s fragile, self-effacing lyrics and sweeping celestial noise pushed it onto the radars of a few discerning YouTube-hoppers with an ear for good tunes. But internet celebrity never looked to be much of a goal for Batz, who seems to use the mask-and-hoodie getup to erase the ego from his performance rather than to amplify it. He’s no self-proclaimed chameleon like the corporate avant-gardists of the US, nor does he pursue an aggressively anonymous public persona. He’s simply most comfortable playing his songs as a cartoon, gathered around a trove of melody-making toys with identically costumed bandmates.

His identity or lack thereof isn’t really what’s at stake here. Batz has crafted such a finely tuned performance that we don’t even find it interesting to wonder what he looks like behind the mask. We’re more excited to take him at face value, to accept that all we need from him is that simple facade, that garbled voice, the music married to such a simple image that we don’t even need to pick it apart after we’ve taken off our headphones.

And maybe it’s that simplicity, that consistency that makes Sleep Party People’s latest LP, We Were Drifting on a Sad Song (2012, Brine & Barnacles), so entirely endearing. From start to finish, it’s packed with the sort of choked hymns we’d expect to come from a young man in a rabbit mask. But this time around, Batz makes better use of the presumably expanded resources available to him. Diverging from the strictly electronic landscapes of his self-titled debut, Batz surrounds his crystalline vox with lush instrumentation. Moonlit piano and cinematic strings dance around his curdled squeals. By the climax of opener “A Dark God Heart”, we begin to realize that we’re not entirely hovering inside the confines of what one might consider “electronic music” anymore. It’s more as if someone let a broken robot sing on an Explosions in the Sky record–enormous, eruptive and engagingly strange.

But Batz knows he can’t surf mountains for long. By track two, we’ve settled back into a more comfortable, more sustainable mode: the pop song. Like on his debut, here Batz does a whole lot with rather little. Letting a slightly off-kilter tone push his simple melodies and bare structures up to the heights of something more than another derivative hook, Batz bones up his bubbly synth-pop with a robust otherworldliness. Is pop still pop if we’re hearing it through the walls of a cryogenic chamber on the moon?

Even the overtly dance-y title track manages to be something more than the New Wave in which it takes root. Like how Active Child managed to evolve somewhat the pop of the ’80s by wrapping it up in harp and falsetto, Sleep Party People takes vintage sonic ground and blasts it to death with a new sickly weirdness. There are hooks, but they’re strangled. This is pop, but you’re not sure you recognize its face underneath all those bruises.

Sleep Party People’s creative violence could be construed as similar to what Perfume Genius did to the simplest of piano ballads (see the slow ache of “Heaven Is Above Us” or “Melancholic Fog”). It’s similar, too, to what M83 has been building up to for the better part of a decade (“Things Will Disappear Like Tears in the Rain”). You might say that Sleep Party People is what would happen if Perfume Genius and M83 were to raise a warren of space rabbits together. Sad Song skips across both the volcanic highs of the French electo-pop ensemble and the wounded lows of the Seattle pianist. Only on this record, there are no fucking saxophones and no bare-bones confessionals: just the milky strokes of an artist who’s able to capture the simultaneous isolation and universal connection one feels when gazing at photos of faraway nebulae.

We Were Drifting on a Sad Song isn’t an especially personal record, at least not in the traditional sense, but listening to it feels wonderful in the way that reading about the “Wow!” signal or scoping out numbers stations feels wonderful. From the loneliness and fear of seemingly alien communication emerges an inexplicable sense of belonging, of giving ourselves over to the indifferent rhythms of a universe beyond understanding. It’s a sad song, but at least it’s freeing.

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