Fuck Buttons’ Slow Focus

Published by The Quietus, 26 July 2013. Original post.   Fuck Buttons by Makinations (Creative Commons).

Among the litany of horrible music journalism clichés that ought to be stricken from any album review is the phrase “the album so-and-so was born to make”. It’s not only lazy writing, but it has some pretty dodgy metaphysical baggage, since it implies that every artist or band has a telos towards which they will naturally, almost effortlessly, work. Of course, this isn’t the case: artists make albums through consciously directed hard work, and sometimes their gambles turn out to be failures—David Bowie was not only born to make Low, but also to make albums as forgettable as Never Let Me Down. Despite its readily apparent incoherence, though, music writers still cling to the “born to make” phrase, which indicates that it serves a purpose as a shorthand for something a little more complex. After all, how else can you describe an album that simultaneously transcends an artist or band’s previous work while sounding so characteristically them that it could be the work of no other? How else can you express the wonderment of hearing a record that retrospectively alters your opinion of a back catalogue, that brings together and synthesises the disparate parts of a latent greatness—an album that, in short, unbreaks the circle of an artist or group’s own narrative?

So let’s put it this way: Slow Focus is the album Fuck Buttons were born to make. It takes all of the impulses displayed across their previous two records—2008’s Street Horrrsing and 2009’s Tarot Sport—and refines them into something cold, methodical and deadly. (It isn’t called Slow Focus for nothing.) It matches the virtues of Street Horrrsing’s rough, faintly DIY production values with the slick professionalism of Andrew Weatherall’s work on Tarot Sport, generating a larger-than-life sound where gleaming, polished synths nestle hand-in-glove with power electronic riffs as terrifying as a chupacabra sighting. And underpinning the whole package are those drum patterns—big, beefy, room-shaking things that would mark Fuck Buttons as dance music producers to watch out for, if only their music weren’t quite so unfriendly.

Slow Focus

  Cover, Slow Focus (2013).

Make no bones about it, though: Slow Focus isn’t exactly welcoming. While many were baffled by the fact that selections from Tarot Sport featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, Danny Boyle’s keen ear picked up what many of us had perhaps not considered: that beneath the veneer of white noise, Tarot Sport was an album designed to soundtrack transcendental moments of tribal connection, be that a neo-pagan ceremony, the MDMA-enhanced group love of a warehouse rave, or the wholesomely middle-class spectacle of the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Slow Focus, by contrast, is designed to soundtrack moments of isolation and paranoia, almost to the point of sounding oppressive. Consider ‘Sentients’, possibly the album’s most menacing track: a floor tom booms with cavernous reverb, a robotic voice chants nonsense syllables in chilly monotone, and a piercing shriek (human or artificial? does the distinction even matter here?) rises and falls. All this before the camp gothic organs arrive in the song’s final minute, at which point it sounds as though Skynet has awoken and the machine apocalypse is finally upon us.

That final minute clues us in to something that might not be immediately obvious about Fuck Buttons, particularly in the context of Slow Focus: their sly sense of humour. It’s not the centre of attention here, and nor should it be, but it does add just enough levity to ensure that Slow Focus doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own enormity and portentousness. Take, for instance, the queasily off-kilter hip-hop beat that underpins lead single ‘The Red Wing’, or the effervescent, Growing-like guitar sounds that bubble up throughout the same track: these relatively small touches keep the track afloat even as the power electronic lead melody abrades your eardrums and the crystalline clarity of its counterpoint jabs at them like needles. That same sly humour allows them to throw in a couple of musical references that don’t fit onto the received map of Fuck Buttons’ contemporaries or influences: what other noise music act could open an album with a tom-drum pattern lifted almost verbatim from Kate Bush’s ‘Sat in Your Lap’? Lest all this sound too dreary or intellectual, it’s worth emphasising just how viscerally fun Slow Focus can be: ‘Prince’s Prize’ has the kind of body-jacking juke beat that wouldn’t appear out place on one of Le1f’s less languorous tunes, and it bounces along courtesy of a grinding, filthy bassline that legions of Flying Lotus wannabes would kill for.

You’d be right to think this all sounds quite removed from the tinnitus-inducing euphoria of Tarot Sport, and even further removed from the charmingly naïve and slightly ramshackle blend of post-rock structures and noise music that characterised Street Horrrsing, and in many ways it is. But rather than pushing further into the cavernous, subterranean lair they have constructed, the final two tracks of Slow Focus look back at their previous work and create a rapprochement between their abrasive roots and the sense of bodily transcendence that they seem to have been chasing since their inception. ‘Stalker’, with its stately, rising key changes, seems to be working from a similar template to ‘Olympians’, itself a kind of epic Straussian tone poem. But there’s a hint of uncertainty in ‘Stalker’ that doesn’t dog the blissy heights of ‘Olympians’: the melody’s motif ends on a querulously high note before plunging back to repeat itself; the sequence of notes remains unresolved. If this is pushing towards transcendence, then it’s also pushing against the heavy weight of reality.

‘Hidden XS’, by contrast, feels desolating despite its similar structure, less a herculean struggle towards the unknowable and more a kind of a slow, widescreen panning shot over a scene of unimaginable destruction. (It’s not for nothing that Fuck Buttons’ music is often talked about it cinematic terms.) Taken in the context of the rest of the album, these two tracks suggest that Fuck Buttons have started the process of pulling together the disparate parts that make their music so exciting to form a complete, self-contained and idiosyncratic aesthetic. I can’t guarantee that whatever happens next will be another quantum leap forward for the group, or another album they were born to make, but I can say—using yet another horrible music criticism cliché—that it will be worth keeping an ear open for whatever they do from here on out.