If electronic wizard Matthew Dear’s Black City actually existed as a metropolis, as its title begs people to picture, it would probably be a place of stark, unadorned architecture. Most things would probably be made of stone or dark sheet metal. It would be cold and occasionally unfeeling, but at the same time, it would be apparent that something warmer is pulsing right below the surface.
This concept is what Dear seems to mine for the entirety of Black City‘s 10 tracks. Fitting the title, a gloomy net hovers above every song here, none of them never creeping along faster than a mid-tempo crawl. There aren’t any huge, dance-floor-ready bangers to be found here, as there were on his last full-length, 2007’s Asa Breed. Instead, it’s a collection of tunes about lacking feeling, sex, and the animalistic longing that comes with it, delivered by Dear’s consistently multi-tracked baritone. It’s definitely a challenging listen, but in terms of sonic experimentation, setting a mood and sticking to a consistent theme, Dear not only hits the nail on the head, he drives it all the way through the board.
The first half of the album is a slow, sensual burn — a series of slimy, R&B-tinged electro nuggets that reaches a climax with the downright filthy “You Put A Smell On Me.” In that track, Dear piles on the come-ons as high as possible, his voice wracked with exhausted desperation. Behind him, the track bumps and grinds before locking into a robotic pulse. It’s completely non-subtle, but it’s one of the moments where Dear makes such a drastic left turn that it’s impossible to ignore, along with album closer “Gem.” Here, over warm piano, Dear self-flagellates a bit, crafting a hymn of regret that almost comes off as an attempt to shake of the sins of the album’s other songs.
Elsewhere, opener “Honey” offers the album’s most organic sounds in the form of a slinky bass line and live-sounding drums. As the song builds, what sounds like throat chanting begins to materialize from the background, adding to the trance-like nature of the track. “I Can’t Feel” is a superb example of musical symbolism. A steady bass part carries the track, and seems to represent Dear’s inability to feel — no matter how many more sounds and stimuli are packed into the track, and there are many, the initial groove remains the same.
Each one of Dear’s releases under his own name have been statements of extreme competence, and Black City is his thesis on how he’s capable of delivering a dark, lustful album just as easy as he can mine more bubbly, melodic sounds. Beyond this, he’s delivered one of the more cohesive and thematically sound albums of the year so far.