Throughout his solo career as TOBACCO, Black Moth Super Rainbow frontman Thomas Fec has experimented with varying degrees of ugliness, whether it’s running his percussion through cruddy old recording equipment or distorting his beats until they’re part of some clubland version of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Of course, beauty has always crept through the muck, too — he’s never been beyond interrupting the nightmare with some dreamy synth twinkles, allusions to vintage E.T. porn videos be damned.
On Sweatbox Dynasty, that formula gets reversed. For the most part, there’s an enchanting aura to the tone of each track; if the music isn’t exactly beautiful, it’s at least entrancing in how it can lull, then numb one into a private-listening fog. Opener “Human Om” starts off wobbly, but soon gets taken over by a steady clap pushed forth by cybernetic vocals. Like many past TOBACCO releases, the lyrics are almost totally obscured, though somehow understood — a robot whose voice box has been smashed, but is still doing its very best to communicate. By the time the wobble drops out completely in the last minute, the vocals sound less distorted and worried, as if they’ve finally gotten through to the audience. Fec’s time-tested trick works equally well on “Gods In Heat”, which starts off with an arpeggio reminiscent of the opening to The Police’s “Message In a Bottle”, then elevates the classic rock nod by locking into full-on android mode.
Fec’s bio-mechanical vocal quality (the guy very well may have a vocoder for an Adam’s apple) remains consistent throughout Sweatbox Dynasty, and as such, ends up adding some much-needed unification when some of the old ugliness manages to creep in. “Hong” purposely skips and stops so much that you might think the track is corrupted, and most of “Wipeth Out” — despite its bubbly guitar line — gets underscored by a motor effect that’s disorienting to say the least. This dichotomy of repulsion and majesty-induced stupefaction is certainly a fascinating one, but also harder to pull off when it comes to dance music. While Sweatbox Dynasty isn’t necessarily trying to be a lit-up club soundtrack, there needs to be some kind of momentum that isn’t going for unabashed grossness like TOBACCO’s earlier work. But because it hovers in an uncommitted middle ground, it never becomes clear what Fec’s trying to do.
The runtimes don’t help either. Five of the album’s 12 tracks come in at under two minutes, and only a small handful of the remaining tunes go beyond three minutes. That means songs like “Suck Viper”, “The Madonna”, and “Memory Girl” all have the air of a sputtering boat engine — the motor constantly revving up, stopping, then starting over again without ever going anywhere. The brevity never makes it clear whether or not the glitches are intentional.
At a little over six minutes, closer “Let’s Get Worn Away” manages to be more anchored with its sonic goals, able to shift through six or seven different phases to make it clear that Fec is aiming for a collage-like final product. Elsewhere though, Sweatbox Dynasty is mostly just composed of individual pieces of a collage, a mashup, a pastiche, whatever you want to call it. Maybe it should have just been one long, untitled track.
Essential Tracks: “Human Om”, “Gods In Heat”, and “Let’s Get Worn Away”