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Destroyer’s ‘ken’ is a perfect median of rock and techno

(Destroyer/ Facebook)

“That’s kind of my goal: to start from scratch every time.” Dan Bejar and his band Destroyer begin each album like Pete Townshend ends his concerts—destroy what’s left and start again. What started as an indie rock throwback to progressive rock artists like Yes and Rush, Bejar’s projects have become more and more personal, gearing more toward baroque, orchestral instrumentation and experimentation as he’s grown into a verbose singer-songwriter.

Each Destroyer album embodies a new venture. While often in touch with his rock roots (or maybe trying to stray away from them), the last decade of Destroyer releases have included Spanish ballads, jazz fusion, folk rock and chamber pop.

What’s most ironic about Bejar’s work is how gentle and nuanced its composition is in opposition to his moniker—the only thing being destroyed is momentum. “ken transitions the softer orchestral sound of 2015’s “Poison Season” to an embracement of electronica with Dan’s ever-classy touch.

“Sky’s Grey” works as a perfect opener, immediately bridging the two albums. Dan Bejar’s voice is unique in how it can sound both gentle and understanding, but also slimy and mysterious.

Despite the breakneck tempo, the metronome percussion pans very quiet under Dan’s singing and piano flourishes. The second half transitions to a rock outfit, dropping the drum pad techno for strings and Real Estate-esque guitars as Bejar sings repeatedly, “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist.”

The album excels in somehow making these techno accents and neon 80s synths sound so natural—just another instrument someone picked up on stage. Maybe it’s because they often play counter melody to guitars or Bejar’s vocals.

“Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” swings more toward techno. The percussive synths on “ken” are clearly influenced from the kind of neon 80s throwbacks of “Hotline Miami” or “Drive”—that kind of outrun art style.

While a good portion of the songs lean on these, the outro brings the resurgence of Bejar’s orchestra of not just strings, but brass and guitars, making it all fiercely original and refusing to be categorized. It doesn’t sound like techno or rock or baroque—it just sounds like Destroyer.

“Saw You at the Hospital” plays as a purely acoustic rumination while “A Light Travels Down the Catwalk” follows, made in the exact same mold, but purely techno. There are one or two songs where the gimmick flounders. Bejar’s lyrics and voice steal the show on “Rome,” but the two styles don’t intertwine very well. As the longest song on the album, it can become too cacophonous and confused.

It can be hard to listen to when Bejar’s voice, the electric ambience, juxtaposes with guitars and horns—everything just fits a little out of place. While “Ivory Coast” gives the instrumental space to blend the two styles and let them play, it sounds like the perfect mix of the two, but all without striving for anything bold or memorable.

“ken” incorporates all kinds of techno and synth into the neverending Destroyer wheelhouse, and makes it all sound completely organic against Bejar’s sultry, gentle voice, brass sections, strings and guitars. It’s such an interesting choice to not use any kind of conventional techno, but instead pick up the blaring neon synths found on something like the “Stranger Things” soundtrack.

It’s even crazier how well it works, and just how natural it sounds. It would have been nice to see some kind of cumulative work of the two styles, something developed further. As is, it feels more like treading water. But Bejar has to be commended for coming off the heels of his critically acclaimed foray into baroque, orchestral pop and then immediately reaching for something completely new, blending the two seamlessly.

 

Matthew Joseph can be reached at mejoseph@umass.edu.

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