February 20, 2012

Jonah Bromwich’s most natural trait is telepathy.

One of electronic music’s most enjoyable characteristics is its ability to seem alien. It can seem like the kind of advanced sound that everyone will listen to once the singularity takes over and our bodies are ½ nanobot. It’s easy to forget that the beats are crafted according to the same melodies and tones that enable us to enjoy less futuristic genres.

Ernest Gonzales, better known as Mexicans with Guns, has a handle on the human side of synthetic sound. On his new album, Natural Traits he exposes that organic quality, making these warm-blooded touches the centerpieces of his beautifully structured suites. Something as simple as an acoustic guitar comes to life when it’s surrounded by otherwise heartless mechanics; the balance between the two types of movements makes the album into a remarkably smooth listen.

The songs tend to start in the same way, with a rigid, unfriendly sounding-structure imposed within the first thirty seconds. On “The Scattered Thoughts of Raindrops” (one of two song titles that dramatizes water), a muted wobble and steady beat are instantly hypnotic, anxious and unsettling. “Peaks and Valleys” comes on morose and cold, no doubt residing in the valley part of the equation. “In the End” loops an acoustic chord into a loose shuffle while “The Voice of Fate” appears to settle for being a musty, septic groove.

But in each case, these adamantine structures simply set the stage for the track’s true warmth: all of these songs introduce an element that casts a pale sunshine over what had been a dark affair. On “Raindrops,” the whispered voices clear the clouds and make way for a brighter set of synths. “Peaks and Valleys” ingeniously brings in that naturalistic element by mirroring the original melody with violin strings in a higher octave; the peaks are shown to be inverted reflections of the valley. “In the End” uses the beauty of a few horns in the same way as Air’s “Ce Matin La” introducing a dreaminess that immediately nullifies the chaos of the composition. And “The Voice of Fate” places a woodwind piece so elegant it’s almost baroque in the center of all that cluttered sound. The pieces share the dreamy quality of chillwave, but they avoid the cheap sound that’s too often associated with everyone’s least favorite micro-genre.

As well thought out as these patterns are, the two best songs on Natural Traits come when Gonzalez ditches the gambit, creating two songs that don’t attempt to disguise their moods. “When Synchronicity Prevails” stays true to its name, summoning the ardor from the start in a shimmering circle of noise. The digital sounds “Synchronicity” are just as bright as their analogue counterparts, and as the song unfurls, it becomes clear that the two make perfect sense together. “Beneath the Surface” takes the opposite route, sounding like a slowed-down version of “Idioteque” as if the melody had become mired in the ice that Thom Yorke saw coming a decade ago.

Kid A actually provides a pretty interesting contrast through which to look at Natural Traits. When Radiohead came out with that album, it signaled a definite shift, an acknowledgment of the pervasive, seemingly insidious presence of technology in our lives. Gonzalez makes music that resides on the same spectrum as Kid A. But here, the ominous signs of an impersonal future are lessened by that emphasis on what’s accessible and human. The songs suggest that, despite our initial reservations, humans and machines can combine in perfect symbiosis. No matter how deeply we coat ourselves in technology the layers eventually fall away to reveal a warm, familiar heart.

Download:
MP3: Ernest Gonzales-“The Scattered Sound of Raindrops”

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