Matthew Dear is a true shapeshifter. Seriously, this guy is like Mr. Sinister or something. The DJ/Ghostly International co-founder/producer dabbled in straight dance music on 2003's Leave Luck to Heaven, tried on his microhouse hat for the warm-yet-lifeless Backstroke, took a soujourn into glitchy tech-pop for 2007's Asa Breed, and enshrouded himself in carnal filth and aural gloom for 2010's Black City.
That last record was a game-changer for the New York City-via-Detroit artist. It was conceptualized as a stark metropolis that never sleeps. Dear described in interviews that it was a plugged-in environment where weird things hid around every corner of the near-industrial mix. The next corner will be fifth album, Beams, which drops later this year. The short Headcage EP acts as a sturdy enough bridge between Black City and Dear's future travels in techno or whatever his muse will be.
This new four-track release features a slinky duet with Jonny Pierce of the Drums ("In the Middle (I Met You There)") and a title track that was co-produced by Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid (Fever Ray). Both are preternatural in detail and mood. Sulking nocturnes "Street Song" and "Around a Fountain" don't fare as well. This bifurcation of the release pinpoints one of Black City's tiny fissures: it can be a dreary album to listen to on repeat.
That being said, Headcage is a slightly more hopeful release. Even its swirling, abstract cover art resembles one of the many transportative scenes from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Dear once possessed a lighter side (see: Leave Luck to Heaven) that sometimes is lost in the emotional abyss of his new songcraft. He tries to recapture a fraction of his benignant past with Headcage.
Dear operates best when he works up a nice groove (a prime example being Black City's lecherous "You Put a Smell on Me" or "Headcage"). The latter starts the new EP on the right foot with a crisp hi-hat and breathy, chopped-up vocalizations from Dear. It's the kind of vampish, polyrhythmic electro that Dear and his production associates Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid do so well.
Some type of severe depressent courses through the veins of moper "Street Song." Dear's vocals are uninspiring and the woozy composition goes nowhere. "Around a Fountain" ends the EP with a palette-cleansing dub chamber piece. The vocals sluice around. It's quite a lovely song about hurtful love and points towards possibly more luminescent songs yet to be released.
Sadly, both it and the EP it bookends show only a hair's breadth of progress from previous albums. That's not entirely a ruinious outcome, but it's not always an enticing one. Dear will no doubt pull the rug out from underneath his fans once Beams sees the light of day: He's still a lovable shapeshifter.