Gumshen - Progtronica
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Record Label: Unsigned
I don’t know about everyone else, but I miss the shameless 1980s revival that was happening about 10 years ago in the indie rock scene. Bands like the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Keane, Interpol, Scissor Sisters, LCD Soundsystem, and others kicked their way onto the scene in the early 2000s and carved out a niche for themselves – both on the radio and in the critical sphere – by spinning acidic hooks, glammy aesthetics, synth-drenched arrangements, and non-ironic homages to a decade whose music had, until that moment, been considered tragically unhip for years. Most of those bands traded the rubric for career longevity for the key to shiny, poppy immediacy, but that doesn’t make any of their introductory records (Franz Ferdinand, Hot Fuss, Turn on the Bright Lights, etc.) any less classic a decade later.
That statement is probably something that the gentlemen Gumshen, a Seattle-based quartet, would raise their glasses at. While the band claims “electronic” as one of the prime genres on their press releases and websites – they even named this EP Progtronica – they actually make surprisingly and unreasonably catchy eighties pop in the same vein that the aforementioned bands were doing 10 years ago. Their arrangements may be more freeform than bands like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers have ever traded in, but with the glammy vocals of singer Ron Hippe leading the way, there’s something significantly more accessible about this album than its title indicates.
Opening track “Bell Ringer” is perfect proof of Progtronica’s unexpected infectiousness. Led by chiming and repetitious electro-pop synth hits and a subtle drum-machine beat, “Bell Ringer” initially feels much more sprawling and unorthodox than it actually is. The arrangements shift throughout, from floor-to-ceiling organ sounds to evocative 1970s guitar tones to police siren synthesizers. The bulk of the song, however, is still laid out in traditional verse-chorus format, with Hippe’s melodies winding their way through looming verses and surprisingly grandiose choruses to reach the jam-band esque section that provides the song’s eventual fade-out. It’s a train ride of a tune, but it’s also one that displays Gumshen’s best quality as a band right out of the gate: they provide catchy, electronic-driven music that is technically experimental, but never dispenses with tonality or wanders off on hard-to-follow soundscapes. These songs are tight and taut, grounded in comfortable melodic grooves that we’ve all heard before, but doing new and exciting things with them.
Case in point is “Fine One to Talk,” which, if stripped to its essentials, would be little more than an out-of-place alt-country ballad. Hippe sings more like Kevin Griffin on this song (of 1990s one-hit wonder band, Better Than Ezra) than he does like Alex Kopranos, James Murphy, or Brandon Flowers, and the acoustic guitars at the outset have a pleasant folk lilt to them. Still, it’s the song’s lush instrumental overlay – synths and ambient sounds galore – that earns the song a place on Progtronica despite its distinctively different musical direction.
Another new path is taken on “Bait & Switch,” which combines modern dub-step influence with a 1990s Rage Against the Machine-esque feel. It’s the most schizophrenic song on an EP that never decides on a single musical style. Hippe sings, wails, shouts, mutters, and growls, always accompanied – is if in some bizarre electronic ballet – by robotic laser-blasts of industrial synths, grinding electric guitar parts, and crashing drums. Particularly coming after Progtronica’s most subdued and melodic moment, “Bait & Switch” is a bit jarring, but that fact speaks to what makes Gumshen special as a band. Sometimes, as on “Bell Ringer,” everything sounds unified, in sync, and directional. Other times, it sounds as if these guys are all playing on different records – some in folk bands, some in post-millennial eighties revival members, and maybe even one in Linkin Park – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The songs on Progtronica are bursting with bizarre vitality and life, and all of the disparate elements are necessary to keep things fresh and interesting. When Hippe sits a song out vocally, as on the interminable closer, “Fragile We Are Castles,” the band misses the mark. It’s when Gumshen are mixing all manner of genres and styles, straddling the line between mainstream-leaning indie pop and out-there electronic music, that they truly strike gold.