On his classic remix of The Kills’ “Cheap and Cheerful,” SebastiAn took one of Alison Mosshart’s sinister asides — “It’s all right to be mean” — and built it into a personal mantra. Back then, the real-named Sebastian Akchoté was at the top of his game: Ed Banger head Pedro Winter recently wrote that he credits the Serb Frenchman with creating his label’s trademark sound, and listening to SebastiAn’s debut single “H.A.L.” (a relic from 2005), it’s easy to hear why. That song, with its violently churned and battered hip-hop samples, was to prophecy the brief vogue of the “banger” that began a couple years later, propelled largely by SebastiAn’s singles and remix work. By the summer of 2008, he was still slaying festivals and dancefloors with heavy tunes like that towering Kills fix, though the moment — and that of Ed Banger’s apparent blog-world domination — would soon pass. If ever there was a perfect time for SebastiAn to drop his debut album, it was then and there.
Of course, he didn’t: it’s become typical of French electro acts to stall interminably, and SebastiAn helped start that trend, too. It’s been the downfall of Daft Punk (a four-year wait for the two-week rushjob of Human After All, followed by half a decade for the formulaic Tron 2.0 soundtrack, does not a happy fan make), as well as Ed Banger, who looked helplessly toward SebastiAn and Uffie to maintain the tidal wave of momentum built by their flagship act Justice’s 2007 debut, †. Like Uffie, SebastiAn seems to have spent most of the time since on other things; perhaps not a quick marriage-baby-divorce, per se, but rather a similarly dead-end relationship with drugs. His reputation as a coke addict and his typically asocial demeanor have led most to believe that the hard stuff has all but dissipated the man, rumorous claims that make sense but are difficult to verify — SebastiAn’s no-interviews policy and densely tobacconal aura have long kept at bay fans and reporters both.
And like Uffie’s miserable Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans, SebastiAn’s much-belated debut sounds a whole hell of a lot like the 2008 release it should have been. But in the case of Total, that’s not a bad thing — though it mostly surprises in terms of what it’s not. This album is neither a heaping stockpile of material (the back cover misleads: these 22 tracks are through in 51 minutes), nor the reflection of an Olympiad-long effort to stretch himself beyond his familiar techniques. SebastiAn’s skill as a classical composer and pianist, revealed on yesteryear’s fantastic soundtrack for Notre Jour Viendra, makes few appearances here, and if anything, Total finds the producer reigning himself in, keeping things as concise and simple as possible.
What it is, however, is a very fine encapsulation of SebastiAn’s unique aesthetic, expressed through a kaleidoscope of genres. Make no mistake, this is French electro in the key of Akchoté, a maximalist dance music built on bloodletting hard cuts, syncopated lacerations, one-chord funk stabs, and the ever-reliable coup de grâce of a rhythmic breakdown sliced against swaths of tinnitus drone. But here, SebastiAn uses his custom set of graters and sieves on everything from punk thrash and stoner rock (“Total,” “Jack Wire”) to a champagne pop tune so bubbly that Breakbot will have to scramble to out-aerate it on his next EP. “Water Games,” one of the record’s eight sub-minute transition pieces, sounds like Ariel Pink produced by Mr. Oizo; “Hudson River” thunders in like E.L.O. on US Airways flight 1549. Perhaps the biggest surprise is hearing the king of mean nicen up with a couple of damn-near-sunny Prince tributes, “Love in Motion” and “Embody” (the former sung by a smothered Mayer Hawthorne, the latter marking SebastiAn’s vocal debut — as the Purple One with cigarette throat), but the fact that he manages to pull a winner out of a one-bar riff and a guest vocal from M.I.A. might just take the cake.
It’s still a shame he used her, though, because her appearance makes “C.T.F.O.” a de facto single, and many are likely to dismiss Total as little more than a brawny electro workout on that basis. And while you are guaranteed to be deader than neu disco after a proper run through this album (though its many stylistic shifts and palate cleansers help to keep it from tiring in the wrong way), most of the material here bears a complexity that rewards more cerebral listening. SebastiAn’s bricolage of garotted samples and half-choked interjections makes for ghost notes aplenty, developing matrices of multi-directional melodies and polyrhythms deep in the mix on just about every tune but the one with Maya. Infectious grooves like “Arabest” and “Yes” are just as sophisticated on a pair of headphones as they are visceral coming through a wall of JBL stacks.
Even though SebastiAn’s many experiments here all check out, the brightest highlights are the tracks that stick closest to his signature sound: “Fried,” a massacre that unfolds like a Rubik’s Cube; “Tetra,” a classically inspired twining of Middle Eastern trills and Daft Punk harmonics, as assisted by Justice’s Gaspard Augé; “Kindercut,” a fiercely developed version of a filter-heavy dream that leaked in 2008; and a slight tweak of “Ross Ross Ross,” the 2006 single that first brought SebastiAn to the masses. Which actually winds up being Total’s one real flaw: most of it sounds dated, and most of it is. But that shouldn’t be a problem for listeners less concerned with blog cred than quality, and to be honest, it wouldn’t have made sense for SebastiAn’s first album to sound like anything else than his signature. The timing may be off, but Total transcends trends to be one of the year’s best dance records, and a likely cult classic in the making.