The smell of a vintage paperback doused in coffee and camembert. The sound of an old man called something like “Gus” softly whistling his favorite ditty. The feeling a vole probably has upon tucking itself under a cozy fold of dirt. The final scene in Home Alone. That’s warmth: a blissful thing, an elusive thing, an almost kitschy thing typically found in fine wines and kind faces and home interiors. Say it out loud — /wɔːmθ/ — the word itself is a quick cuddle of consonants ending with a pleasing fricative that sizzles like a cigarette being dropped into a puddle.
Yeah, pretty fucking weird name for a techno record, tbh. And yet somehow an appropriate one in the case of Blondes’ latest effort, which takes a musical language characterized by cold-blooded futurism and punctuates it with something that resembles “warmth.” It’s nothing like the sickly warmth of indie aesthetics, nor the analog warmth sought out by cassette tape purists, nor the nostalgic warmth sent tingling down your spine by a Fender Rhodes Mk 1. Rather, there are these faint touches of humanity behind each layer of piston-perfect repetition: the music not only throbs, but breathes as blood courses through every modulation and fingertips tinker behind every nuance. Take the opening track “OP Actual,” which is both rhythmically strict and texturally free, stirring up classic elements of ambient play — room noise, electrical whirring, mechanical humming, gentle static — and fixing them to a power grid of kick drums. There is no “musical object” here, only the relived experience of two quiet blokes multi-tracking live jams in a Brooklyn apartment block at four in the morning while high on quinoa and mint tea.
By engaging with techno forms through this praxis of spontaneity, Warmth captures the organic and the mechanical in a single sweeping gestalt. (And, suddenly, the cover artwork makes more sense: tangled fragments of natural and artificial substances, vibrant poppies shrouded in the lifeless color of negative film, ambiguous gray things that could be… rocks? …mushrooms? …tumors? …beads of liquid gallium? Is that a swan?) Sure, you have the metronomic pulse, the restrained synth loops, the staccato bass lines — these fixed elements in the musical structure, or “states of being” as Zach Steinman has it, are meticulously arranged and calibrated with machine-like accuracy and then left to forge their own timeless substrate. But it is the duo’s myriad free-flowing responses to these elements, the dynamic becoming associated with human process, that adds flesh to the bones.
Although each track plays into these repetitive structures to an extent, it’s clear that Blondes aren’t afraid to color outside of the lines. Like children with their crayons, they grind down with fist-grip spaghetti hands, head tilted 90°, wild concentration in their eyes, a purposeful dash of red here, a mindless scribble of green there, and a thick stroke of black on the kitchen counter because FUCK YOU DAD. A track like “MRO” feels imbalanced, agitated, capricious, with the kicks desperately trying to pin down scrappy fogs of dissociated sound as they swell up into fits of rage. And on “Clipse,” a flurry of silvery bells and squelchy synths develops a shadow of reverb so dark that it actually swallows the percussion section whole. Still, we can rely on these loops and thumps and cycles and grooves to guide us through surroundings that are otherwise alien to us, ones that often venture too far into the abstract to be explored in their own right. That is until our hearts develop a serious case of arrhythmia on “Cleo,” a track that rejects four-to-the-floor altogether. Instead, it clicks and clacks like a woodpecker chewing on mahjong tiles while aimlessly fluttering between soaring pads and huge elastic bass slaps. It goes to show what Blondes sound like when they aren’t operating within any self-imposed limitations: proper weird.
Parallel to these diverse soundworlds is a listening experience in equal parts somatic and meditative. You could certainly shut your eyes and “disconnect” with a track as euphoric as “KDM,” but it keeps you firmly grounded in the corporeal with skitty arpeggios that tickle your earlobes, solemn vocals that sink deep into your chest, and scattershot claps that bounce around in your skull like puzzled flies trying to escape. That is, even when your mind is stuck to the ceiling like a discarded helium balloon, your stomach keeps on churning and your skin keeps on shivering. Such is the paradox that haunts Your Brain On Dance Music: you clench your teeth and feel distinctly “here,” only to be continually swept up and taken elsewhere.
“This makes me feel alive!” – you
“This makes me lose my mind!” – you, also
By releasing Warmth on R&S Records, it’s clear that Blondes are aiming to orient themselves more firmly on the dance floor, it’s just not a dance floor that any of us are familiar with. So where are we? It’s a question that the record refuses to answer: “Stringer” is situated at the bottom of a storm drain filled with pissed-off snakes; “Tens” is somewhere halfway between an opium den and a construction site; “Quality of Life” rides an industrial freight train through the desert as it gets torn apart by a sandstorm. But while the term “post-club” gets thrown around a lot, it doesn’t really apply here. That is, listening to a track like “All You” might be like splashing around in the 9th circle of a dirty K-hole, but the party still creeps into earshot for seconds at a time, hey, before creeping off to feed endorphins elsewhere. So there is a club, somewhere, and it’s definitely not behind us — often it’s more, like, on top of us? “Sub-club” would make a bit more sense, as if hearing the music from the perspective of a cockroach living among a jungle of dirty Reebok Classics. Or perhaps: “drunk driving at 5 AM and crashing your Nissan Micra into the side of a Berlin night-club.” Everything is concussed, a bit hazy and distant, with all the activity taking place elsewhere — but without a doubt it’s club music, of sorts.
If anything, the joy of Warmth is that its sound manages to inhabit all of these different spaces at once without being utterly incomprehensible, much like the multi-spatial, almost noumenal experience of the dance floor itself. And with that, dance music gets one step closer to an honest depiction of euphoria; yes, yes, you’re drooling quite heavily, but at least you’re drooling through an earnest smile.