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Drift., "Symbiosis"

cover imageThis is the debut full-length for Nathalie Bruno’s electronic pop project and it is quite a bombshell, unveiling a far more avant-garde and experimental approach than was evidenced on her previous EPs. That reinvention was triggered by a fateful thrift store find (Klaus Schwab’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution) that inspired a deep fascination with both '70s NYC and German experimentalists and bands like Broadcast. Historically, I have found that a lot of kosmische-inspired contemporary music is wince-inducingly bad, cloyingly beatific, or both, yet Bruno proves to be the rare exception who is able to channel that influence into a fresh and inspired vision all her own. The secret, of course, is avoiding the "revivalist" trap and merely filtering all the good bits into your own distinctive aesthetic, but that is far easier said than done. While Bruno's vision admittedly errs a bit towards homage on some of Symbiosis's instrumental interludes, the more fully formed songs like "Atomic Soldier" strike an absolutely sublime balance between expert pop craftsmanship, ragged edges, and spacey, futuristic gravitas.  This is a truly exceptional album, as I can think of very few artists are able to blend great hooks and smoldering, understated psychedelia together as seamlessly as Bruno.


The word "symbiosis" is not a particularly obscure one, yet it resonated quite deeply with Bruno when she stumbled upon it in a William Burroughs book (a revelatory trigger not unlike her chance meeting with The Fourth Industrial Revolution).While everyone knows that encountering the right idea or influence at the right time can lead to a significant creative breakthrough, it is equally true that many, many artistic epiphanies are quickly forgotten about or abandoned before yielding any fruit (or else wind up producing something that falls far short of its initial promise).Consequently, I am extremely impressed with both how fully Bruno managed to internalize her new ideas and how persistent she was in finding ways to seamlessly incorporate them into her vision.From the sounds of it, the evolution was not a quick one nor was Symbiosis an album that came easily.To her credit, however, Bruno patiently allowed these songs to take shape naturally, albeit guided somewhat by her desire to craft a thoughtful and complete album-length statement (rather than just a batch of new singles).To my ears, she succeeded admirably, yet Symbiosis is a wonderful album precisely because Bruno is so adept at crafting strong singles.At first, however, Bruno devoted her energies mostly to devouring and assimilating a host of intriguing new influences, both musical and otherwise.And then, once that phase had run its course, she set about revisiting many of her older recordings with fresh ears and a far more experimental bent, carving them up them, recontextualizing previous motifs, and incorporating cell phone field recordings until all the pieces fit together into something fresh, varied, and adventurous, yet still recognizably Drift.

In keeping with Bruno's vision of Symbiosis as an complete, album-length experience, these ten songs unfold with a coherent and intriguing arc that winds up in a very different place than it begin.Following a twinkling and somewhat whimsical instrumental opening ("Masquerade I"), Bruno dives right into a three-song hot streak of the album's most compelling threads.It is fair to say that the first part of that three-part salvo ("Human") owes some significant stylistic debt to Chris & Cosey, as it is built from a minimal, yet driving synthpop groove and breathy, sensuous vocals.That is merely the foundation though, as Bruno quickly makes that aesthetic her own by transforming that straightforward and hooky structure into something more hallucinatory and disorienting with dissonant synth smears, clanging metallic tones, weirdly detached-sounding cowbell flourishes, and retro-industrial voice samples.The following title piece then spends its first third wallowing in blearily warped synth mindfuckery before unexpectedly giving way to a half-beautiful/half-broken final act of tender vocal melodies adrift in a skittering, disjointed swirl of mangled synths and misused guitars.Bruno's early album highlight reel then culminates with Symbiosis's lead single "Atomic Soldier," which casts most of the previous dissonance aside for a gorgeous bit of shoegaze-y pop built from little more than a steadily thumping kick drum and a lysergically swooping synth chord (though she eventually augments that foundation with some jagged guitar chords, stammering vocal loops, and corroded synth tones).Then, after a brief run of more varied fare in the middle of the album, Bruno rallies for yet another run of fine would-be singles.Both "Function" and "Raytheons Radar" return to the early '80s synthpop territory of "Human," with the former resembling a darkly intense minimal wave classic and the latter taking a more playfully burbling and propulsive approach that would make it an ideal second single.

While I would not necessarily say Symbiosis has any significant weaknesses, it is worth noting that none of its ten songs cut very deeply.That is my sole caveat.While it is not exactly a "light" album, Bruno's greatest strengths lie in her craftsmanship, her attention to detail, and her talent for subverting the usual synthpop formula with a host of playful, gnarled, and experimental flourishes.That said, Symbiosis still has way more good songs than most albums in this vein, as almost everything other than the instrumentals boasts a strong enough hook to be a solid single.Moreover, both the character of those hooks and the mood of the pieces varies quite a bit from song to song.In fact, Bruno proves herself to be a multi-instrumentalist with remarkably unerring instincts and unwavering good taste, as some songs are driven by her vocal melodies, some have a great synth hook, some have a cool guitar part, and some are propelled by a strong groove (like the disco-inspired bass line in "Raytheons Radar").She also manages to avoid diluting all of those cool motifs with unnecessary clutter, paring every song down to just its essence."Atomic Soldier" is probably the best example of that, as the essence of that piece is primarily just the swooping synth tone and the vocals and Bruno wisely ensures that both remain the focus (and even goes one step further in crafting transitions that effectively reemphasize those themes).Similarly, her experimentation always feels natural and unselfconscious, enhancing rather than derailing her more pop-minded themes.As far as I am concerned, Bruno does damn near everything right on this album, assembling an impressive streak of fun, sensuous, and catchy songs that feels intimate, homespun, and endearingly idiosyncratic.

Samples can be found here.