Perturbator – The Uncanny Valley

Blood Music (BLOOD 160), 2016

Ah, the 21st century, where everything old is new again. I never thought I’d see a cassette revival – vinyl I get, but cassette? – but here it is. While the merits (or lack thereof) of that archival format is a topic that can be debated elsewhere, there’s been an explosive resurgence of retro-styled electronic music in the last decade or so. Owing partly to the ease of emulation (though many retro artists insist on using original equipment) and partly to the creative rearrangement and recombination that many of these albums are built upon, it’s been quite an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold.

James Kent’s alter ego Perturbator is one of the more noteworthy retro projects, combining the sound of 1980s analog synthesizers with the keen edge of modern production, and the finer art of enhancement through modern styles. The Uncanny Valley is Perturbator’s fourth release, courtesy of Finnish label Blood Music, and it’s arrived in multiple formats, including digital, CD, a few magnificently designed vinyl limited editions, and yes, cassette. The 1980s were a showy and decadent decade, and it’s fitting that The Uncanny Valley has been given a corresponding treatment, especially since the album’s artwork is already draped in succulent neon hues and boldly slashed writing – not to mention the blantantly R-rated image gracing the cover.

Perturbator’s music matches the presentation. It’s brash and energetic, the love-child of Tangerine Dream and modern hard techno, with DNA contributions from 80s synthpop and Vangelis. The opener, “Neo Tokyo,” announces The Uncanny Valley with turbo-charged synthwork and glitched-out percussion. It’s an exhilarating fusion of classic tinny-sounding analog keys and manic electro percussive rhythms. As opening credits go, this one’s a stunner.

Kent is a clever alchemist, however. While it’s clear he could have stayed very comfortably within this glowing zone where Wicked City meets Tron (the original, of course), he’s got more tales to tell. “Weapons for Children” slows the tempo and kicks up the drama, its fuel-injected synths intertwining organically, tempos breaking and resuming in thrill-ride intervals. “Death Squad” is a few degrees heavier, both in structure and atmosphere, with a perfectly placed sequence adding an edge of anxiety befitting the track’s title. There’s an undercurrent of the cinematic, as if The Uncanny Valley was the soundtrack to an 80s tribute film; “Femme Fatale” is thick with backlit urban smoke and sensual intrigue, and is clearly influenced by Vangelis’ classic score for the influential film Blade Runner. “Venger,” a neo-future pop anthem featuring the sultry vocals of Greta Link, is irresistibly catchy and full of interlocking synth hooks; if The Uncanny Valley was a soundtrack, this would be the chart-climbing hit single.

From here, The Uncanny Valley does little to slow its delirious momentum. Inertia-laden tracks such as “Disco Inferno” and “Diabolus Ex Machina” provide a hint to the sexy succubus of the album’s cover, and the unspoken plot reaches a climax on “Assault” and “The Cult of 2112.” It becomes clearer that The Uncanny Valley – named for the strangely detached inhuman appearance of computer-generated human faces, representing things that are not as they appear – is a conceptual work, but the true nature of its meaning is left for us to contemplate. “Souls at Zero” and the closing title track (as in closing credits, of course) are the culmination of the events, the hymn of the wreckage left by the conflict, and the glimmer of hope among those who survived.

Perturbator is not satisfied with mimicry. While Kent does have a special fondness for the era that has influenced his sound, his work isn’t just about nostalgia. The Uncanny Valley is a tribute to the curious edge of the 1980s, when experimentation and pretension began to join hands, but the album is more than this. It’s a period piece drowned in modernity, crowned with heavy doses of creativity and panache. Kent casts a knowing eye on his influences, analyzing them then molding them anew; embracing the original spark and coaxing it to burn with fierce new light. Perturbator is riding the crest of 21st-century synthwave, and The Uncanny Valley is proof that Kent has cemented his place.

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