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Reviews: Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus

Fuck Buttons' Slow Focus

It’s been four years since Fuck Buttons’ last LP, the ceaselessly enthralling Tarot Sport, and I was starting to wonder when or even if the next one would arrive. Aside from a requisite remix 12” for “Olympians,” their interim output all arrived via Benjamin John Power’s solo project, Blanck Mass, whose 2011 self-titled LP explored the arpeggiated drone landscape populated by Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never. That style offered a comfortable distance from Fuck Buttons’ rhythmically driven transcendence, but last year’s fantastic White Math / Polymorph EP added beats and energy, ultimately residing much closer to Power’s main gig. Couple this proximity with the fact that both Blanck Mass and Fuck Buttons had songs chosen for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, and suddenly a permanent switch in priority becomes less far-fetched.

All such theories were instantly invalidated by Slow Focus’s lead track, “Brainfreeze.” The first twenty-five seconds reorient listener expectations with a hammering, tribal beat before any of the anticipated synthesizers arrive. As if that beat weren’t pummeling enough, reinforcements join the left channel, sloshing my brain from eardrum to eardrum. And yes, the synthesizers do arrive, a bewildering, maximalist array of seagull squiggles, slow-motion turbulence, machinist progressions, and the skyward-aiming glimmers that highlighted Tarot Sport. But at no point did I forget the chain of body blows coming from the drum tracks, even when they drop out mid-song for a much-needed breather.

Fuck Buttons could have easily employed this template throughout Slow Focus, thereby reestablishing the dividing line between it and the less punishing Blanck Mass and stepping forward and away from Tarot Sport, but the six tracks that follow “Brainfreeze”—provided you succeed in pulling “Brainfreeze” off repeat—revel in subverting expectations. “Year of the Dog” cuts the beats out entirely, employing a rapid-fire rendition of Blanck Mass’s arpeggios to unsettling effect. Lead single The Red Wing” (sadly not a spoken-word narrative from Steve Yzerman in the vein of Daft Punk’s “Giorgio by Moroder”) sways sensuously on an unrushed hip-hop beat, even when the foundational synth kicks into overdrive. “Sentients” reminds how well Fuck Buttons have sublimated the noise impulses of Street Horrrsing (i.e., the unintelligible yelling) into ear-turning oddities. Its 8-bit enemy chomping and half-buried feedback tangles add to, rather than overpower, the song’s John Carpenter soundtrack atmosphere. “Prince’s Prize” borrows the funhouse-mirror distortion of Clark’s “Totem Crackerjack.” The appropriately named “Stalker” spotlights the darker tones running throughout Slow Focus with its ten-minute lurk, demonstrating the palette shift from Andrew Weatherall’s often-gleaming production values on Tarot Sport.

If not for its closing track, I’d argue that Slow Focus purposefully sidesteps the immediate bliss-out of “The Lisbon Maru” and “Olympians,” but “Hidden XS” delivers one final narrative-denying blow with its propulsive beats and upward-arcing melodies. It’s both a fist-pump and a tangible exhale, the polar opposite of the cranium-crushing “Brainfreeze.”

I haven’t mentioned the fact that Slow Focus marks the first instance of Fuck Buttons eschewing a name producer (Mogwai’s John Cummings, Weatherall) in favor of handling those duties themselves, in part because there’s no discernible drop in fidelity or inspiration. What this decision does indicate is how the group has gone from being defined by outside sources, whether producers or the wildly divergent names dropped in reviews of Street Horrrsing (Prurient, My Bloody Valentine, Suicide, etc.), to firmly existing within its own realm. It’s more natural now to compare Fuck Buttons to their peers, their side projects, or their past material than to locate them within a broad field of reference points, even if a few of those still pop up. Slow Focus doesn’t offer the same mind-melting revelation of fulfilled promise that Tarot Sport did, because it can’t—I approached it knowing full well what heights they’re capable of reaching. Instead, “Brainfreeze,” “The Red Wing,” and “Hidden XS” excel at exploring unconquered terrain within a defined realm. Subverting expectations may lack the sexiness of surpassing them, but it’s an essential trait for long-term success. Consider my fears of Fuck Buttons’ priority or lifespan completely assuaged.

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