On Kill for Love, the Chromatics‘ fourth full-length in over a decade of making music, the Portland troupe carves out a 90-minute jaunt that seemingly soundtracks the seedy underbelly of a Western metropolis. Equal parts desolate, morose, post-apocalyptic, enigmatic, glowing, and radiant, the vintage cinematic sounds that emanate over its 17 tracks recall the early work of filmmaker/composer John Carpenter. That comparison isn’t too much of a stretch, either. In an interview with the band’s producer, multi-instrumentalist, and label head Johnny Jewel (of Italians Do It Better) last year, Pitchfork addressed the echoes of Carpenter and even Giorgio Moroder, to which Jewel replied, “I don’t really see the Moroder comparisons myself, but definitely John Carpenter and his engineer, Alan Howarth. They’re just incredible. Part of it is that I use some of the same equipment they were using in the early 80s and late 70s.”
There’s something important to take away from Carpenter’s music to fully grasp the Chromatics’ work here, and it’s the composer’s minimalistic nature. His iconic B-film scores for Assault on Precint 13, The Fog, Escape from New York, or even the highly underrated Halloween III: Season of the Witch run with a short supply of sounds and instruments, typically allowing the silence between each synth or guitar line to occupy the space. As a result, the stuff feels foreboding, dangerous, and sickly ominous, but never altogether scary. There’s always this poppy undertone to each track that holds you in. With that in mind, Carpenter’s scores feel like predecessors to the Chromatics’ body of work, and especially their latest LP.
Even album opener “Into the Black”, their chilling cover of Neil Young’s ”Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, sounds like it belongs behind an opening title sequence sporting names like Kurt Russell, Keith David, or Tom Atkins. Ruth Radelet’s lounge-stripped vocals arrive dusty and sparkly with ’70s scruff, sauntering over Western guitar lines and ghostly synths. It’s a solid harbinger of things to come, though you wouldn’t tell from the title track that follows. What feels like a lost New Order anthem shoulders the album with a shiny dabble of synth pop that should rope in the fans that don’t necessarily subscribe to the darker ethos they typically trademark. It’s this table tennis match of light and dark that merits the use of the adjective “compelling” when describing the album as a whole.
Similar to a Carpenter film, darkness conquers all here, and the majority of Kill for Love spends its time exploring these other realms. It’s melancholy in its murky floats (“Broken Mirrors”), vocally haunting in its decadence (“Candy”), and it chews with an attitude during its balladry (“The River”). Picking up where 2007’s Night Drive left off – funny enough, the one place most new listeners likely started; on the 17-plus minute thrill ride that is “Tick of the Clock”, used effectively in last year’s Drive – a healthy percentage of Love takes its time to breathe. Eight of the 17 tracks span over five minutes, three of which cruise past seven, and one of those doubles that. So, yeah, this isn’t an easy album by any means whatsoever.
No Chromatics effort really is, or any project involving Jewel, for that matter. Given his free reign – after all, he is the main figure head behind his own work – there’s never this sense of restriction to anything that he does. That’s part of the beauty to his shimmering beast. He sets his own rules, he explores where he wants to go, and it’s worked remarkably well. Okay, so he didn’t get to score Drive, but he issued a dizzying two hours of blissful instrumentals last year (Symmetry’s Themes for an Imaginary Film), and he’s retroactively reinvented Italo disco and the way we approach electronica, a genre that’s always in need of true auteurs. Actually, it’s sort of bullshit to call Drive one of his failures, considering three of his goddamn bands made it on the soundtrack.
So, okay, he’s a genius. Yes, that’s a troubling word to use, and people tend to get all up in arms about it, but Jewel has really made a case for the title. Between his undying love for everything analog to his rich textures that pretty much shrink wrap each track, he’s created a style. Most artists just work with styles, tweak genres here and there, but Jewel has assembled something unique and made it his own – similar to how Jack White has branded his own blend of blues rock. With Kill For Love, it almost feels like the man’s true thesis, as if he’s strung together all his ideas, feelings, and sounds into one colossal being that acts less like an album and more like a highly organized archive. It supports his most obvious tenets; from the sprawling atmospheres to the ricocheting eerie synth pop.
It’s not all dark, though. That’s sort of an overstatement, mostly because when the band decides to step into the light, they’re ready to razzle and dazzle. On sugary sleek tracks like “Lady”, “Back from the Grave”, “At Your Door”, and “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”, the instrumentation shifts from the lurching abyssal highways into the mystifying nightclubs, where everyone’s begging for the morning to never come.
Based on the final moments of Kill for Love, it’s unlikely the sun will ever return. On “No Escape”, the groggy 14 minute closing track, the band drifts away, leaving the listener to dwindle alone. With 50 seconds left, things get silent, almost too silent, until there’s nothing but a faint crackling deep within. What do we do now? To crib from Carpenter’s The Thing, “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…” Sound advice.
Essential Tracks: “Lady”, “At Your Door”, “Kill For Love”, and “Broken Mirrors”