Mount Kimbie gives a thoroughly unique album-house techno with garage rock

By Matthew Joseph

(basic_sounds / Flickr)

If anyone has been following the techno scene, you’d know just how ludicrously fragmented it’s become, but you can still distill it down to two groups: festival EDM, and then everything else. The big DJ sets of Coachella and Lollapalooza are here to stay—Steve Aoki and Zedd aren’t going anywhere soon. But the rest of post-dubstep techno, as a reaction to the radio EDM takeover, has been recoiling into rich, varied experimentalism.

Previous years featured ambient house dripping with textual soundscapes, “-wave” scenes finding their niches, and glitch-hop flexing its permanent roots in EDM. This year has been very light on techno, but Mount Kimbie comes to feed fans clamoring for music, and that’s still a bit odd considering how small the duo of Kai Campos and Dominic Maker are.

Mount Kimbie is one of those small, back-alley projects that have been cultivating praise from critics, but never breaking into widespread appeal—despite inventing post-dubstep. So, coat tailing off of James Blake’s sophomore album, Mount Kimbie teamed up with the indie pop sensation for “We Go Home Together” earlier this year.

It’s not like the single has been raking in millions of views, but Kimbie is now “blip on the radar” status. No, what got them into the spotlight they’re in now is being on the front cover and page of every music publication this week as one of 2017’s best, must-listen-to albums.

“Love What Survives” opens with “Four Years and One Day,” two synths that play loose and fast with call and response echo, and with one down pitched over live drums. The synths diverge into near-Darude “Sandstorm” electronica, driving the rhythm into post-punk guitar, all cultivating into blown-out-amp sonic chaos by the end of the three-minute runtime.

All of this is intelligently scripted. Mount Kimbie keeps the 4/4 pace of traditional house music, that is, repetitive yet iterative electronica. If the genre of “house” is completely foreign, think “Harder Better Faster Stronger” by Daft Punk, which is an exemplary example of the genre.

Similar to rappers on a beat tape, one of the hardest things for producers to accomplish is finding good talent as features. Two talented artists working together does not make a good song by their presence alone. While James Blake sometimes feels tacked on for name recognition, the other three features, King Krule, Micachu and Andrea Balency, are fantastic in their roles.

British artist King Krule makes the only rap presence on the album on “Blue Train Lines.” Krule brings a dose of U.K. grime to the track, not too unlike Danny Brown’s third studio album “Old.” The opener’s rugged presence lays the tone for this heart-beating track.

The train lines are an allusion to veins running through the body—Krule narrates the story of a man, a junkie fighting through days of welfare, who finds a woman covered in blood from self-harm (Although the one line “I might have drowned her” alludes to a possible relationship between the two.) Mount Kimbie compounds this with fast-paced drum pads and roaring synths.

Stand out track “Marilyn” features art-pop musician Micachu, her voice melodic but still subdued with contemplation. The choruses bob their heads through the standout verses, with Mount Kimbie dropping the levels of the marimba-sounding synths to accompany Micachu’s beautiful “I’m looking up at you, are you looking up at me?”

The song keeps rhythm with soft cymbal hats. “Love What Survives” has a beautiful ruggedness to it, as if garage rock and techno could somehow combine sounds. Another example is “You Look Certain (I’m Not So Sure),” which plays like a Courtney Barnett song, with its indie rock guitar and Andrea Balency’s vocals.

Virtual drums and bell-like synth backbeat are the only things that make the track remotely techno, but there’s a careful restraint to it. It’s weird to take a rock turn on your techno album, but Mount Kimbie makes it work.

Continuing the welcomingly odd change in style is “Poison,” a neo-classical, piano only ballad. It’s a short run time, but the soft ticking of a peculiar noise in the soundscape and the eventual addition of a low, humming synth give the track a warm, snug feeling.

“We Go Home Together,” the first of two James Blake features, opens with sampled laughter and a cleverly played vaudeville synth that repeats but drops each bar before any major key keeps the song as cold as a typical James Blake track. Organs follow James Blake into his slow musing into the outro of the short track, “we go home together…”

The album ends with the second Blake feature, but before that is the one-two punch of “Delta” and “T.A.M.E.D.” “Delta” plays fast with a melodically absent intro of footwork drumpads, into an atonal synth kept in place by the chord progression of a second. Sticking with the track’s progression rewards you with incredibly endearing, bright melodies over half an album’s worth of varying drum patterns.

The track’s inconsistency and ambition do become a burden, but the fun is worth it. “T.A.M.E.D.”’s intentionally lopsided mixing has traditional synths battling Damon Albarn-sounding vocals. The second half of the song, while disjointed, has uncredited female vocals repeating her chorus over the rough rock-meets-techno soundscape. The track ends with the male vocals returning, synths dropped and replaced with the plunking of piano keys and plucking of a guitar. 

“Love What Survives” is maybe Mount Kimbie’s best work yet. What makes it so unique is that none of their work so far has incorporated any elements of rock. None. And yet here they come swinging with this experimental piece that keeps traditional elements of house while giving an edge to turn on new listeners.

Even the new era of experimental EDM was getting a little stale with too many artists turning to ambient aesthetics or off-kilter, jutting electronica just for the sake of being different. Sometimes the formula is a little too chaotic. Once or twice a track will drive confidently with no clear end in sight. But for the one or two misses, coming out the other side of “Love What Survives” will make listeners realize why, yes, it is an essential listen of 2017.

Matthew Joseph can be contacted at [email protected]