HTRK have been shedding since they started out. Although their debut EP Nostalgia was one of the most violent things to come out of the Australian underground since the Primitive Calculators crawled out of the sewer, every step since has been designed to dial back the noise and to scrape that record perfected. But they’ve also been losing people; first, the passing of their kindred spirit and collaborator Rowland S. Howard, and then the death of their bassist, Sean Stewart, whose brutal, Tracy Pew-level rude assault on his instrument was central to their identity. Yet, even though Psychic 9-5 Club is their most pared-back record, it feels like the fullest delivery of their promise yet, like they’re finally drawing to a new whole.
Although they’ve always been easy to root for as a Platonic ideal of ‘luuded out cool, HTRK have been difficult to love — too postured, too aloof, too Helvetica (someone said that to me at a party once). So much of the HTRK aesthetic to date has been the suppression and restraint of the matter in their music, a music of emotional torpor rendered as torpor — it was subliminal messaging, through sub-bass — but on Work (Work, Work), it was often too buried to make a dent, to show the hurt instead of imply it through process. Vocalist Jonnine Standish laughing was maybe the most radical thing they could do next, and when the chuckles come late into the otherwise exquisitely malodorous “Feels Like Love,” Psychic 9-5 Club almost instantly becomes their best work yet.
Discipline and physical exertion have always been lodestones in experimental synth music, but so has humor (“Slug Guts” might be horrifying, but it’s also a bloody lark), and at times Psychic 9-5 Club flat-out grins at you; check the penicillin pink of the cover art, for crying out loud. After all, the profoundly enervated Work (Work, Work) was a long dilated gaze from someone too far gone to sob, buzzing raw and grisly with pain, repetition, and effort. It was basically an exercise in exorcising grief (and emotion generally) that was so psychologically accurate it was occasionally unlistenable. Psychic 9-5 Club isn’t discipline per se, but it feels like the result of it, the sound of HTRK finally getting their yin and yang in balance. There’s a parallel here with Prurient’s Bermuda Drain, another synth record that was the culmination of dialing down what was forbidden and focusing instead on the charisma hidden underneath.
Like, the distance which HTRK held the listener at used to be something you could mistake for vacuity or emptiness, but here it’s something they actively play with. Jonnine Standish’s vocals — previously blurred and absent, like a striptease seen through someone else’s very thick prescription glasses — are front and center, and where she might have reeled off abstract word-paintings of submission and fracture, here she directly addresses you, and “Give It Up” is the strongest invitation to a HTRK record so far; her admonishment that “you’re talking more than your mouthful” rings like a heel satisfyingly pressed on your neck.
The move lyrically toward more realized abstract, full narratives like the rivetingly slinky “The Body You Deserve” is quietly thrilling (think Throbbing Gristle’s “Persuasion” as sung by a late-night life coach), and the more substantial lyric sheets give Standish’s ability to command full reign. If HTRK used to be hypnotic by lulling you into unconsciousness, now you just can’t take your ears off them, like Madame Psychosis reborn in a minimal wave band.
That’s not to say that Psychic 9-5 Club isn’t still nebulous. In “Wet Dream,” she oozes “I’m in love with myself,” but the words fall into a hall of mirrors, more Lady from Shanghai than it is self-affirmation. The rhythms here are stripped and rubbed clean, and the synths have the same quality, feeling sensuously sterile, somehow. Standish and Nigel Yang have spoken a fair bit about spending time swimming with producer Nathan Corbin of Excepter, and it’s borne out in both the taut ebb and flow of their synths and the way in which Standish and Yang themselves blend into each other. Their embrace of interlocking structure (instead of a more anomic drift), like on the elongated, shifting phrasing of “Soul Sleep,” would be utterly anthemic if it weren’t so denuded, and all the more powerful for being so aloof.
It’s been a long way, and this feels like only a first step (stretches here, like the too-long “Love is Distraction,” meander). HTRK have journeyed from a world made of the most skronky to the most sweatless sounds possible, and this is the sound of them arriving at themselves. At last, HTRK are inhabiting their own spotlight instead of disappearing into negative space, and by shearing off the mystique, they’ve become much more riveting.