Lo-fi buzzsaw drones seesawing out simple but euphoric chord progressions command a certain incommunicable devotion. I’m convinced there’s a gene for this stuff. The organs and their highs are always somehow different-but-the-same; just seeing certain words in reviews make mouths water. It’s also been known to short-circuit my own analytic abilities. Most recent offense: I compared Gentle Friendly’s debut Ride Slow to early Casiotone before I realized — wait a tick, this doesn’t sound like Casiotone at all. It’s neither Painful, nor Alone; it’s just not the same scene. See, real drone-pop junkies get free-associative regardless of what press and culture tell them; they can almost feel an invisible community in those sonorous tones. If you have the gene, you know who you are. For everyone else scratching their heads in the “nothing like fucking Casiotone” camp, Ride Slow remains so seamless a cultural mesh that it’ll swiftly draw its fair share of converts from realms as disparate as loop-folk, neu-New-Wave, and, um, Fuck Buttons.
The appropriately named London-based label Upset the Rhythm has gained some clout in the last few years by mining some of America’s junkier/loopier dilapidates for UK release (including Lucky Dragons and Bird Names), but in Gentle Friendly the label may have finally found some locals that stand up to the overseas competition. Jittery opener “No Infinity On,” not to mention several of the other short interludes sprinkled throughout Ride Slow, fits snugly into Upset the Rhythm’s niche. A pitch shift evokes those 78rpm songs Neu! used to dabble in and lowers stakes accordingly — it feels like a last-minute “fuck it” on their part, and it’s more fun for it. But it doesn’t prepare the listener to be hit sidelong by “R.I.P. Static,” an absolute gem that lays the groundwork for the rest of the album.
David Morris sings almost the entirety of “R.I.P.” on one note, while the tidal fuzz rises and falls around him. The effect is robotic, but also secure as a buoy — incidentally, the threat/allure of water and waves is one of the album’s thematic threads. Sometimes it seems like he can’t change pitch, like he’s been enslaved by the drone (if you have the gene, you can relate), so he channels all of his energy into dizzying tongue acrobatics. The song flies through a fractured narrative full of desires and images (“Happy New Year, raise a fist to the room/ We don’t like ice in our drinks, we put the ice on our wounds”), and in lieu of any real chorus, key lyrics lock-groove to an unsettling effect: “You mixed the surf with the turf, that was your first mistake your first mistake that was…” etc.
The one-note vocal theme rears its head a few times throughout the album, and it’s more varied and distinct than it may sound in print. The pendulous, penultimate “Illuminate His Face” is a particularly rewarding deceleration of what “R.I.P.” set into motion, the diced syllables now spread out into a heavy, stuttering rhythm that surfaces only on a certain exhaling chord that’s always familiar yet unforeseen. The song could have been thrice its 3:27 length and remained just as hypnotic.
If there’s a flaw with Ride Slow, it’s that the vocals don’t always sound like this or play off this idea, and thus threaten Gentle Friendly’s identity. The low-register groan of “Shrines and Shit” falls flat on its face, and “Lovers Rock” — the album’s ballad, if you want to call it that — is gorgeous but somehow feels less theirs. The mistake is understandable on an album whose strongest aspect is transition and the sense of variation that transition creates. “Police and Love” is 30 seconds of generic drum machine whose only function, I’m convinced, is to energize the impact of “Real Fighters.” This is just as true of fleshed-out songs like “Vincentt,” which live and die on their own unique (but-the-same) sound: in “Vincentt”s case, a pileup of slow-decay pulse.
By any account, Gentle Friendly fly through these redemptive gearshifts — 15 tracks in 35 minutes — which keeps the energy high enough to maybe mask what an act of sheer faith this album is. David Morris and Daniel Boyle spring-load these songs, so on successive listens the potential energy gets thick as crazy glue. This is addictive stuff, too sticky to shake off. I will continue to pump my fist not just for Gentle Friendly’s auditory sickness, but also for their function: as a group that substantiates and breathes life into an invisible community, a group that can preach equally to the choir and the passer-by. “There’s something happening in the outside world.” I don’t think it’s just the gene talking.