Soft as Snow Glass Body [EP]

[Houndstooth; 2014]

Styles: synthpop, Scandinavia, cracked smiles, silent shouts
Others: Björk, Old Apparatus

Houndstooth is having a “moment” — or at least something like it. Far from the lightning-in-a-bottle streaks that the term is usually reserved for though, their moment has been one of good curation, pure and simple. An offshoot of Fabric Records started by Rob Booth of Electronic Explorations fame early last year, Houndstooth has yet to be defined by a particular locale, scene, or sound, having already dropped records from techno man-of-the-moment Call Super, sound design whizzes Akkord, and breakbeat enthusiast Special Request, just to name some of the higher profile artists on their impressive and quickly expanding roster. Why mention this here? Well, because Soft as Snow’s signing to Houndstooth says just as much about the label as it does the artists: Booth clearly isn’t afraid to step outside the club (and judging by his recent signing of TMT favorites 18+, he might stay out for an extended smoke break), while Oda Egjar Starheim and Øystein Monsen of Soft as Snow will gladly slot their atmospheric, expansive synthpop right next to the bleeding edge of dance music. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and this, the duo’s debut EP, is quite the promise of what’s to come.

If you’ve come across anything written about this rather talented Norwegian pair in the past few months, then you already know what comparison is coming: Soft as Snow sound an awful lot like The Knife. It’s a rather hard observation to avoid, since it works at both the level of appearance (Scandinavian male and female making pop tunes with analogue synths) and the level of sound (disarming, disembodied moans over blown-out textures). However, leaving the comparison there does a massive disservice to what’s going on in Glass Body. Sure, it owes a sonic debt to the Dreijer siblings, but it’s in a way that manages to feel vital in 2014. While The Knife are off turning their hits into overactive, shittier versions of themselves and pursuing the overtly political side of their aesthetic, Starheim and Monsen are resurrecting the dark, haunting underbelly that made 2006’s Silent Shout arguably one of the best albums of the last decade. They’re The Knife that you forgot you needed.

On the standout title track, they waste no time in swallowing the listener with a groundswell of sub-bass and 2-step that escalates into an emotional maelstrom of arpeggios. I’d be tempted to call it a twisted take on minimal wave, but this isn’t music for cellars and basements; it’s for wide open fields and dense forests, recalling early M83’s distinctly digital take on shoegaze and fulfilling the promise of their MBV-referencing name. Starheim repurposes Grimes’ coos from “Oblivion” in the way she expertly softens consonants into nothingness, adding Hughes-ian drama to an already gorgeous beat. Most of the other tracks see the duo pull off a similar trick, but to lesser effect. In “Black Birds,” the detuned, offbeat oscillations are dizzy and hypnotic, but the skyward vocals seem to get caught up in the sonic muck. “Drops of Armour’s” 808s and distant steel drums plod along pleasantly enough before finally picking up steam for a twisting, churning finale, but it’s unfortunately one that seems to lose some of its energy in translation to recorded form.

Then there’s “Halo Heart,” which really does deserve credit for handily being the most polarizing song on the release. Depending on your mood, it’s either the best or the worst track here. If you prefer your synthpop to pick one structure, stick to it, and fade into the background, the song’s multiple tempo flips can feel a little too jarring and incoherent. If you’re ready to fall down the rabbit hole with them, hearing the two deftly flip through different speeds is a sneak peek into how weird their sound could become. Starheim’s wails here are particularly Björk-y, with the vocal melody recalling “Jóga’s” elemental force. Befitting the duo’s current residence in London, the strongest portions of the track have dubstep’s half-time lurch embedded in their DNA, temporarily anchoring the track before it continues to morph. Asher Levitas (of outré club collective Old Apparatus) appears on remix duties to make the track’s rhythmic lineage a bit clearer, though he does a remarkable job keeping the character of the original song intact, barely even nodding toward the club at all. As the remix reaches its climax, it manages to inject the booming, sweeping atmospheres of someone like Holy Other with some proper swing. There’s definitely a reason Soft as Snow have associated themselves with some of the best the hardcore continuum has to offer, and if they can continue to let their peers influence their textural pop, they clearly have a bright future ahead of them.

Links: Soft as Snow - Houndstooth

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