Analogue equipment carries its own distinct charm, something most modern software just can’t replicate. Where digital synths are unerringly accurate every time, the slightly bent and burnt circuitry of older, beaten-up gear lends it a wonderful feeling of unpredictability. Each time you send a signal blazing through its innards something slightly different comes out, lending it something it’s getting harder to find in modern electronic music: a real sense of character.
Stockholm duo Roll The Dice know this. Malcolm Pardon and Peder Mannerfelt forsake the tired ‘two blokes, two laptops’ set up that’s become an entrenched feature of modern electronic music. Instead, taking advantage of the chaotic nature of analogue synthesizers, they summon up ghosts from the machine, crafting instrumentals that unfold with an organic, spontaneous logic. Last year’s self-titled debut proved an underground hit, its haunted pianos and pulsing electronics attracting fans like Kieran Hebden, Caribou and Fuck Buttons, landing in 2010 top tens by tastemakers Boomkat and Phonica.
Their full-length follow-up for Leaf takes their sound in stark new directions. Compared with the warm, woody feel of their debut, In Dust is darkened and contemplative. It still recalls the kosmische explorations of Cluster and Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk’s heady blend of pop and propulsion, but it feels lived in and worn down, like an old 12” that’s been spun too many times, its groove scratched and erratic.
“It’s meant to be a little unsettling and claustrophobic,” explains Mannerfelt. Roll The Dice’s records tell stories. The organic textures of their first album, he says, represented the duo’s early explorations through uncharted territory, whilst In Dust’s opener ‘Iron Bridge’ finds them approaching the outskirts of the big city. It sprawls for a full eight minutes, its opening drone eventually giving way to urgent rhythmic motion. As they sink deeper into the blackened heart of the metropolis and begin to experience the lives of its inhabitants, the tone darkens further – the appropriately titled ‘Maelstrom’ gathers with the fury of an approaching storm.
“[We wanted it to have] an overwhelming feeling, rather than being too intimate,” continues Pardon. “Though the first one might not have immediately come across as intimate, it was a bit more nature-like in a way. This has more of a big room vibe to it.” Recorded in Sweden over the first few months of 2011, mixed in a remote studio in Norway and finally mastered in Berlin by Stefan Betke (master of electronic dub Pole), it certainly achieves that. In Dust is far more open and resonant than their earlier work, at times almost orchestral in tone, veering between stately grandeur and feral release almost without warning.
But as with their debut, the real beauty of Roll The Dice’s music is in minor, seemingly incidental details. Mannerfelt’s experience as a member of Fever Ray and Pardon’s background in TV and film composition have contributed to a sound that’s packed with subtle flourishes: the ominous metallic texture in the background of ‘Dark Thirty’ evoking the mechanical grind of industry; the way sombre lullaby ‘The Skull Is Built Into The Tool’ distends in its final few seconds like the maw of a giant furnace. And despite the sense of foreboding that hangs over In Dust, it finds the duo’s lilting piano lines more intrinsic to their music than ever before. During the first half of the album their warmth serves to further heighten the conflict between machine and humanity. As the narrative progresses they gradually add light to its shadowy corners and eventually, on breathless closer ‘See You Monday’, offer the promise of redemption – even if only through acceptance of life’s harsh realities.
Roll The Dice aren’t the only adventurers currently delving into the world of analogue synthesis. Over the last few years, there has been a sudden explosion of interest in its possibilities, perhaps partially as a result of the transient information overload of the digital age. But what sets the duo apart from their closest modern contemporaries exploring similar headspaces – Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, even the groove-obsessed Factory Floor – is a film-like approach to composition. Their pieces are cinematic in scope, their understanding of the importance of silence and restraint giving their music a real sense of narrative development.
“This album is made as a whole piece; it’s made with the album in mind,” says Mannerfelt by way of explanation. As a result, In Dust feels less like simply a collection of tracks, and more a complete thematic piece. That’s unsurprising: unlike their debut, which was pieced together during a couple of years’ worth of evening jam sessions, In Dust came together quickly over the winter/spring of 2010/2011. And unlike many modern electronic artists, with In Dust the duo project an entire aesthetic, from the storytelling arc of its music to the conflicts between nature and human activity that inform its artwork. Meanwhile, the duo have made a short film to trailer the album, its sinister mood and barren landscapes grounding their music in physical reality.
That aesthetic naturally extends to their live show. It’s appropriate, given the volatile nature of their equipment, that they avoid simply performing their music in its recorded form. Instead they work with the same basic elements, but extend them even further outward in a process Mannerfelt describes as “controlled improvisation” – a dynamic captured on their recent 12” for Leaf, Live In Gothenburg, which featured dramatic, reimagined versions of two tracks from their debut. And with the new show they’re currently working on, they reveal, they intend to use analogue visual equipment in much the same way as they use synths, integrating music and visuals into a seamless experience.
Obsession with old musical equipment and past musical styles is fast becoming the norm in our hyper-connected world. But crucially, rather than simply mining the past for inspiration, In Dust’s restless forward momentum ensures it feels futuristic rather than retrospective. In a move that runs wonderfully contradictory to today’s backward-looking musical landscape, Roll The Dice harness the power of old technology to forge brand new paths.
artist: Roll The Dice
title: In Dust
label: Leaf Label, UK.
1. A1. Iron Bridge
2. A2. Calling All Workers
3. B1. Idle Hands
4. B2. Maelstrom
5. B3. Dark Thirty
6. C1. The Skull Is Built Into The Tool
7. C2. Evolution
8. C3. The Suck
9. C4. Cause And Effect
10. D1. Way Out
11. D2. See You Monday