Even though Canadian bands Wolf Parade and the Handsome Furs share Dan Boeckner’s instantly recognizable vocals, the latter have gone to great lengths to make a name for themselves. With Plague Park (2007) and Face Control (2008), Boeckner and his wife, keyboardist Alexei Perry, grew into more than just a side project to Wolf Parade. Throughout their history as a band, however, you could always hear the harder, grungy synthesizers yearning to break free from the New Wave-y, almost Strokesian guitar lines. Their latest release, Sound Kapital, fuses the couple’s impressive but disparate talents by eliminating the guitar altogether. Boeckner wanted to “challenge” himself by playing keyboards, and it’s safe to say he rises to the test. Sound Kapital initially sounds like a departure from the band’s earlier efforts, but after repeated listens it’s actually a logical progression. The album hews closely to ‘80s electronic and industrial music of Eastern Europe, which is the primary influence for the new record. This gives them a solid musical platform on which to explore their socialist advocacy and nostalgic denial.
Industrial music, which began in Eastern European clubs and discos, is often described as abrasive due to the dark, throbbing synthesizers and heavy beats. The Handsome Furs use these characteristics like many contemporary pop musicians: for example, album opener “When I Get Back”, explodes into synth leads that sound like something Ke$ha or Usher would use. “What About Us” escalates the club vibe with the characteristic oonce oonce oonce before developing more complexity with multiple keyboard lines; the result is a more assertive, coherent sound than the Handsome Furs’ earlier albums. This sound reaches a zenith on anthemic “Memories of the Future”, which complements Boeckner’s sinewy voice with staccato arpeggiated beats. The only track that deviates from this formula is “Serve the People”, which comes right in the middle of the album. It starts off with a couple of echoing piano chords and heavy reverb, to the point where you can hear the sound of Boeckner opening his mouth. It’s a serious song, in which the accusation, “You don’t serve the people,” repeats over a slow, militaristic beat.
This lyric anti-establishmentism comes out most on penultimate track “Repatriated,” on which Boeckner sings, “When the plane touched down/I was over, I was over, overwhelmed/It was a lie, a lie, believing in itself/I will never be repatriated.” The song’s arrangements—which like industrial affiliates house and techno include lengthy builds and dramatic breakdowns—emphasize Boeckner’s repetition of single words and phrases that build to the song’s climax (“I will never be repatriated”). Form influencing content emphasizes the idea that music can lead to revolution, especially since the original industrial movement reacted to radical ideas like Nietzsche and fascism. “Damage”, in particular, sounds desperate, like a people itching for change, with a noticeably increased tempo and ominous guitars. Bats screeching at the song’s end add to the Twilight Zone effect. That uptick in tempo also gives “Cheap Music” a feeling of urgency, with Boeckner screaming, “No nostalgia on the stereo/No hits ‘cause there’s no radio/No replacement, no replacement/A thousand lonely kids making noise in the basement.” The word “replacement” could even be a dig at the Replacements, whose long-standing influence (and nostalgic value) is, at least on this album, being replaced with the sounds of Eastern Europe at a crossroads.
Sound Kapital exemplifies form mirroring content and vice versa. The electro-industrial synthesizers and drum machines convey the Handsome Furs’ lyrical convictions better than the band’s earlier, less bombastic combinations of synths and guitar. Boeckner’s tenuous voice sounds at home bouncing off Perry’s grungy beats, and the two unleash their potential behind the keyboards. It’s a compelling album that’s almost complete. The only thing the Handsome Furs leave unexplored is the inherent irony in railing against nostalgia using instrumentation and arrangements heavily borrowed from the ’80s. While the Handsome Furs successfully re-appropriate the harsh sounds of the industrial music movement for a less hardcore contemporary audience, the inspiration is older than I am. If that’s not yearning for an appreciation of the past, I don’t know what is. Maybe the band will explore it further on their next album, the soundtrack to the revolution.