HTRK were a trio; now they are a duo. Their second album, Work (work, work), is an expression of this transience brought about by the suicide of the band’s founding member and bassist, Sean Stewart. The 808 beats are eerily slow, the synth lines are achingly lonely, and the vocals are shadowed harmonies so luscious that you could swim in them. HTRK work with palpable emptiness, and although this release may seem well-timed to fit comfortably alongside recent works by Andy Stott, Deadbeat, and even indie boy du jour James Blake, it’s no trendy grab bag. I can see why one might find the sound presented here “faceless,” yet in my view, HTRK’s anonymous approach to voices and simplistic beats crafts a vast open space to get utterly immersed in; if this is an album about loss, it’s a refreshingly unsentimental one that dares to confront the frigid reality of death head-on. Curious that the press release for this record would open with a description of the music as “flat-lined,” because that sells this stuff short. Beyond that immediately visible sonic veneer is an introspective, hurting core, one that sounds to have been denied pleasure for years.
Such melancholy calls for some artistic hubris, and so the London-by-way-of-Melbourne duo can be forgiven for declaring that Work (work, work) “revolves around themes of submission, dysphoria, sentimentality, tech-noir and corporate life.” These lofty pronouncements are also made less dubious by their general accuracy; take “Ice Eyes Eis,” which opens the album with the sound of a German sex worker moaning seductively over a chilling musical backdrop. It’s a shallow lust that’s being explored here, and the contrast between the orgasmic moans of that girl on the television and the resolutely cold surroundings highlights the emptiness of her “sultry” utterances. Such is the relationship between emotion and clinical, grid-confined environment that Work (work, work) explores continuously. The low end of these tracks seems bottomless at times, infusing the often-repetitive rhythms with a deep-running anxiety. “Bendin’” plays with this balance ruthlessly, its hypnotic loop an unceasingly claustrophobic thing alongside a cautiously longing vocal that feels to be entering from a different universe.
Even when the contrast between wispiness and insistent darkness feels a bit complacent, as on the rather lifeless “Skinny,” the music makes for a compelling listen. And if that song seems initially mundane, a quick glance at its lyrics puts the seemingly indulgent navel-gazing in a new perspective: “Electrocute/ Teenager you’re so cute.” This is the corrupted “corporate” world HTRK purport to explore, and here, it’s presented as a sterile, unsettling milieu. When Jonnine Standish sings of love and desire, it feels distant by nature, thanks to the omnipresence of reverb, but it also feels hollow. And I don’t mean that as a pejorative; rather, Work (work, work) does demand its listeners enter a state of being that might not be entirely pleasant. The cyclical words of “Love Triangle” are hypnotizing (“He on she on me/ Me on she on he/ Bermuda Bermuda Bermuda”) but never feel remotely romantic. Instead, they feel cold and alien, the unfeeling documentations of sex by somebody completely incapable of experiencing desire. It may not be exciting, per se, but it speaks to the ultimate appeal of Work (work, work); even in its drugged-up, mournful state, it holds your gaze.