Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). If we examine the phrase “Soft Metals,” our thoughts extend in opposite directions along the timeline. On one hand, we might think of literally soft metals, lead and gold in particular, and remember alchemy and royalty; on the other, a vista opens out of cyborgs and synthetic flesh, of the body as soft assembly, the dehumanizing erotics of the post/modern machine age (or, as the opening track has it, a Ballardian “Psychic Driving”). Both poles smack of transmutation, of the intermingling of sacred and profane. These are characteristics that, as expressed in music, are always welcome. However, one of the central characteristics both of the premodern and postmodern conditions is depersonalization, the lack or troubling of an individual, subjectively experienced, and boundaried self, the banalization of surface and (latterly) repetition — and Soft Metals’ debut LP also reflects this quality in ways that are less satisfactory.
Like the rest of the heavy harvest of artists mining the 80s synthesizer vein, Soft Metals look back to that decade, and also to the future, in terms of recreating an 80s aesthetic that encompasses a discourse about how that future, in terms of the human interface with technology, might play itself out. And indeed, within their own oeuvre, there is a trajectory of this kind of progress: the self-titled LP represents not only a small step for Soft Metals, but a giant leap for their production values from their introductory 2010 EP, The Cold World Melts. Where that piece embodied all the technological flaws and delightfully off-key vocals of low-budget 80s electronica, this album is a more self-assured work, one in which the smooth textures of electronica caress the ear in their entirety rather than harking back to the off-tune melodies and romantic insecurities of freestyle, and the crackle of vinyl.
While I’m usually a sucker for the smooth, cold surface, however, here the paradigm leaves something missing. With the exception of a few standout tracks, on one hand we are not engaged with memorable melodies that would lean the album toward the poppier side of 80s synth and its contemporary revival; but on the other, there is not enough complexity here to engage the deconstructive pleasure characteristic of long-form dance music. Patricia Hall’s voice glides over the artificial sheen of the beats, languid, disengaged, and beautiful, but without the paradoxical, masochistic engagement that characterizes the best exemplars of the cold electro diva. There are echoes to be found here of 90s darkwave electronica (not least in titles like “Pain”), of unsung virtuosi like The Frozen Autumn, or the existential despondency of Epsilon Minus. In contrast, though, toward the end of the album we also encounter moments that start to recall the chords and dance emphasis of house, and here again there are parallels to the 80s freestyle-italo-synth-pop conjunction, reaching at the same time toward the staccato melancholics of minimal wave and to the upbeat stylings of the post-disco era. In Soft Metals’ retro-futurism, then, we find not so much a drop of golden sun as a drop of moonlight, of mercury, a needle pulling Lurex thread through anesthetized flesh.