It’s no wonder techno music so often gets a bad rep. The genre seems to always be associated with clubs filled with drug-induced promiscuity or the drowsy, atmospheric melodies found in nauseatingly pretentious New Wave films. With all these off-putting associations, it’s surprising the genre was able to garner even a fraction of its ever-growing following.
But then there’s Matthew Dear, the co-founder of record label Ghostly International and a University alum who is quickly proving to be one of the genre’s most inspiring artists. His latest album, Black City, is a futuristic and exotic compilation of carefully crafted tracks that takes techno beyond its usage as the mere backdrop for hookups on sticky, sugary-coated dancefloors and into the real world. Under pulsating synths, Dear juxtaposes his soulful vocals with emotional lyrics that prove to be anything but sterile. Instead, Black City is full of touching themes and a sense of vulnerability that resonates in a way you would never expect to hear from an artist known for creating the quintessential techno-treat “Hands Up for Detroit.”
On previous albums Backstroke and Asa Breed, it felt as though Dear was trying to take on a Bowie-esque persona via trippy — albeit contrived — hooks. Over a decade into his career, Dear thankfully forgoes this kind avant-garde pop guise on Black City and lets his own hypnotic vocals take center stage. Sure, his brooding vocals and computerized sound may draw similarities to British indie band Hot Chip — but the resemblance stops there, as Dear’s latest tracks have a sleeker (OK, less dorky) electro vibe than the Brit band. Remember, this is the same Matthew Dear responsible for some of the most popular techno anthems of the last decade.
On album closer “Gem,” piano arrangements are disrupted by Dear’s layered, drawn out vocals and the creepy interjection of a woman laughing. The track plays out with a haunting beauty as Dear croons lyrics that deal with his apprehension over coming to terms with the loss of a lover. It’s the musical equivalent of the shadow of a silhouette hidden in the dark. As the album progresses, it becomes apparent that there is a sense of vulnerability and angst embedded within his songwriting that isn’t often shared by an artist. Still, Dear proves to be in full control of his emotions, never letting them overpower the record.
But Dear picks up the pace and forgoes the emotional heftiness by sliding into disco grooving tracks like “Little People (Black City).” The 9-minute endeavor feels sounds like a track that could easily be found on “Soul Train” — on acid — in the year 2080. Dear’s soulful vocals become layered until they are doubled and even tripled in order to take on a bizarrely robotic, Darth Vader-like demeanor. Under constant drum loops and basslines, Dear croons tongue-in-cheek and oftentimes nonsensical lyrics like “Love me like a clown” and then — out of nowhere — enlists a crazily high-pitched falsetto. “Little People (Black City)” is the sort of fun, overly convoluted mesh you would hope to hear from a techno talent like Dear.
With Black City, Dear has created a record that not only speaks volumes to the future of techno music, but also to his own ability to create enticing techno tracks. After years of working under several different names, Dear lets his own haunting and dark imagination serve as the platform for his tracks. The results are some of the most alluring dark tracks of his career.