Technology has come a long way in the 21st century. Starting in the dregs of the '90s, the first attempts to hybridize the human and the machine came off as entirely tacky and utterly, repugnantly uncanny - the sonic equivalent of truly terrible CGI. Just think back to some of the truly unfortunate mashups to come from that era - "electro-swing", "acid jazz” and bad, featureless celebrity remixes, where an original track had an unnecessary and unflattering 4/4 house beat dropped underneath the main event.
As we approach the Singularity, as processors continue to grow in power while exponentially decreasing in size and cost, we are entering a true era of cyborg art. Technology is finally serving the human, instead of the other way around. Finally, machine beats and slinky synths are made to be relatable, emotive, expressive and, most importantly, interesting and musical.
Nowhere can this be seen more firmly that in the realm of "alt-r&b" (choose your descriptor, it's sometimes called "noir&b" and "pbr&b", as well), where sleek, futuristic beats meet the pure emotionality of the human voice, and the intuitive feel of organic instrumentation. Anyone who's ever spent any amount of time can tell you, it's damn near impossible to program this level of nuance and expressiveness, making it far, far easier to master a wood-and-string instrument than the coding that would make such a thing possible.
Californian duo Slenderbodies sublimely straddle this divide on their album Sotto Voce, laying out a foundation of soulful, breathy vocal harmonies and intertwining guitars, which are fully fleshed out with luscious reverbs, detailed echoes & delays, and super sound design. Instead of bowing solely to the machine, the technology is used to fine tune and finesse the audio, like with the shimmering, jazzy “Polychromatic" or the mirror hall dream pop of album opener “Gray.” If late '90s/early '00s electro was the sound of inept CGI, Sotto Voce is the sound of a fully rendered Photoshop masterpiece, complete with lens flares and film grain.
It is to Slenderbodies credit that they never go full-blown Michael Bay with the post-production. The lens flares are never overdone, the film grain never too faded. They're truly using technology to touch up what is already damn fine electro-infused r&b/soul. Let this be a lesson for anyone looking to unleash their creativity via technology. Always lead, never follow, and focus on what is unique about your music. When there's a message, a solid aesthetic identity and a real story to tell, it speaks volumes.
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