It’d be easy to compare Matthew Dear to the Japanese soldiers left on deserted islands that still thought World War II was continuing years after the fact. Melodic techno surrendered shortly after Underworld released Beaucoup Fish in 1999, and it never followed its electronic brethren into the new millennium. It soon became more a device than a type of music; unless you’re trying to dance until 6 a.m., there’s little point in listening to a form of music that’s mired in pathetic doldrums.
But Matthew Dear fights on. And while one album does not a pattern make, his debut LP is a sure-footed step in the right direction for smart techno. If Dear is trying to change minds about the genre, Leave Luck to Heaven is a dark but convincing case.
While many deejays equate the amount of samples and sirens in their tracks with quality, Dear heads in the opposite direction, ruthlessly stripping down his songs to the barest essentials (a la labelmate Dabrye’s approach to hip-hop). Instead of assaulting you with countless noises, Dear lets you savor each element, letting it stand on its own for at least a short period.
The first proper track on the album, "Fex," works this formula to perfection. A whirring atmosphere is gradually punctuated by the pitter-patter of a bass drum. A bleep here and a pop there keep time before the skipping drums carry the song to its endpoint. The melodious "But for You" is even more minimal; musically, it climaxes right off the bat, but the distorted vocals propel the song with a pop mentality that keeps it interesting.
The first single "Dog Days" harkens back to Dubnobasswithmyheadman-era Underworld, with its dirty, punky theme and distorted vocals. It’s a proven formula, and it certainly works here as one of the more upbeat portions of the album. The Underworld obsession goes a bit too far with "The Crush," however, as its sustained synths and bouncy bass line sound ripped straight from Beaucoup Fish.
There’s no denying, however, that Dear is fronting his own style. The much-abused TB-303 squelch is put to good use on "Huffing Stuff"; the bass slowly degenerates into static, but not before the plucky rhythm gets your ass in gear. The most danceable song on the album, "You’re Fucking Crazy," is also its most sinister. Ghosts bellowing from 10,000 leagues under the sea get brained with echoing samples and a neck-snapping beat for the album’s clear highlight. Black as coal but fun as hell: a tightrope walk that Dear handles deftly here.
The allure of techno lies largely in its speed, its ability to move the masses and shake some asses. Dear works for his rhythm, shunning the standard thump-thump for rolling and darting bass lines that inspire motion without inducing boredom. Because of this, Leave Luck to Heaven would be interesting even at slower speeds, which could be the true mark of musical success in a genre that casts aside such factors. One album can’t erase the stigma of hundreds of dreadful ones, but if more artists take cues from Matthew Dear, techno might just become listenable again.