HTRK Venus in Leo

[Ghostly; 2019]

Styles: isolation, ennui, midnight-or-later
Others: Chromatics, Beach House, some of your post-punk favorites

Horoscopes infuse us with everyday spirituality. The notion that distant stars might be affecting our terrestrial lives is a bit fanciful, but it’s also fun to indulge the less rational parts of our minds. Sure, these readings may tell us what we want to hear, but at the very least, the universe becomes a bit more connected. Then there are those of us who surrender ourselves to our star charts, seeing them as oracles that provide explanations for life’s successes and fuckups.

Venus in Leo, HTRK’s latest collection of midnight-drive songs and the duo’s first new material in four years, is guided by one such astrological maxim. People bestowed with Venus in Leo have particularly romantic dispositions. According to one site, they “prefer to express their feelings of affection with a poem, a picture, or a song rather than with acts… These people feel entitled to flirt or even have a love affair whenever they wish, but even the smallest sign of their partner’s unfaithfulness causes a big scene.” Elsewhere — a direct reference for HTRK — “Love is a bit of a game — a game that is perpetual, as Venus in Leo is forever stuck in the romance stage of a relationship.”

So drama abounds, and sure enough, Leo’s first song “Into the Drama” addresses this. Here, a strumming, chorused guitar and hi-hat wisps don’t propel the track so much as drag the listener through it, illustrating persistent ennui with only the barest of elements and minimal variation. Jon­nine Stan­dish’s vocals repeat, mantra-like, until by the end she is swallowed by her anguish in an incomprehensible mumble. This stark, naked disposition is the strategy for the entire record, murky timbral masses reinforcing melodic lines and stretching out only with great subtlety, a sound HTRK has chased its whole career.

While HTRK’s prior album Psychic 9-5 Club was created after the suicide of their former band member, Venus in Leo shifts anxieties to strained relationships, depression, self-loathing, and even social media. It’s not exactly a complete change of course, but the recording process was reportedly looser this time around, where Standish and guitarist Nigel Yang preferred long takes containing hints of imperfection. The results emphasize Yang’s post-punk guitar, usually the only other lead in the sparse mixes, aside from the vocals or a stray synth pad with which to mingle.

Sometimes this works: minimalism underlining life’s low points. At its best is “You Know How to Make Me Happy,” which seeps along with a funereal organ line mired in deep gloom, like it’s been unable to leave the bed for days. The concept of prosody, denoting the organization of harmonious elements to create an author’s intended mood, is instructive here. “Make Me Happy” deliberately repudiates prosody with uplifting lyrics caressed through dour tones, creating a more dimensional and thereby fascinating listen.

On a track as devastating as “Dying of Jealousy,” the band’s spectral nature mirrors their appearance on the album cover. Reclining on the driveway, the pair fades into the backdrop of nondescript suburban mundanity (Standish’s childhood home, it turns out). Weighed down until they can’t even stand, Standish and Yang become ghosts doomed to haunting a past place of significance.

A couple of tracks miss on the album. “Dream Symbol” repeatedly uses the lyric “Open up the door and let me see shit,” which fails to impact in as profound a way as some of the band’s other songs. (It’s not a total disaster, as it contains other lyrics that are more evocative, like “Oh I crave my summer skin/ When the sunshine kissed my hair/ And the afternoons were innocent.”) “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee,” with its awkward title, features those lyrics over a panning, undulating synth line. The song’s elements feel more disconnected here, which produces a lackluster, forgettable groove.

Venus in Leo closes strongly. “New Year’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve” are connected only by the holiday they share, taking place years, even decades apart. The first arrives from adulthood, while we travel back to Standish’s teenage years for the latter. The New Year’s diptych highlights Standish’s unease with our annual ritual: pondering how far (or not far enough) we’ve come over the last 12 months, yet another place for potential despair.

Overall, Venus in Leo deviates minimally, fearful of letting light shine in, but the moods it creates shimmer with a gorgeous, melancholic atmosphere. If you find yourself on the outskirts in the wee hours, put this album on as you glance up at the stars — maybe there are some answers up there.

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