HTRK (strictly pronounced “Hate Rock”) is a London-via-Berlin-via-Melbourne electro-goth duo that clings to their genre roots like they’re honored family crests. There are misaligned elements on Work (work, work) of Throbbing Gristle’s mechanized beats, Suicide’s bleak apocalypse, and the cyber-punk dystopias Portishead conjured up on Third. All of these touchstones are decidedly bleak for a good reason. Vocalist Jonnine Standish and guitarist Nigel Yang finished the production on their second album in the wake of founding member/bassist Sean Stewart’s suicide in March of 2010. That personal calamity oozes into every corner of this androgynous and horrific song suite.
HTRK’s filmy and claustrophobic production of the record lends to morose thoughts of the band performing these atmospheric tracks while encased inside a tomb. The bottomless reverb on the aptly titled, “Ice Eyes Eis,” can crush your heart. And the vocals take on a Knife-like distortion before a German sex porn slave slathers come-ons over listless 808 beats. Most of this grabs your attention, but HTRK’s cavernous production doesn’t lend itself to outright titillation. Nothing truly sinks in once the apparitions fade into the walls.
They’ve bottled a musty, creeping fear in many places. The Portishead-esque “Slo Glo” and the John Carpenter synth obbligato that slithers through “Eat Yr Heart” are truly disturbing. Its shadowy and distending bass rumble makes it a standout. On the whole, Work is a sparser release in comparison to HTRK’s noise-rock debut, Marry Me Tonight.
The ghost-like imagery conjured in this review thus far eschews the fact that Work isn’t wholly a concept record imprinted by the death of a beloved friend. This soundtrack of creaking synths and drum-machine thumps retains some lust for living flesh. The lyrics to “Bendin’” are as sensual and dripping with gross euphemisms: “forcing the sludge/ forcing the slime/ we’re hooked on silver/ see things in mono.” “Work That Body” is more aligned with a sexy witch-house as Standish menacingly whispers in her deepest voice about “feeling sleazy” and not wanting to get dressed.
Her chameleonic gender roles on this and the threesome-chronicling “Love Triangle” are nothing new to electronic music, or pop music in general. Despite this, your ears are transfixed in fits and starts. Atmosphere overtakes the thrust in the end. Sadly, that’s the state of affairs for the rest of the pitched and detached full-length.
“Skinny” possesses a braided interplay between its guitar whorl and drum-machine death march, but the beat is so dictatorial that you want to just escape it and put on some over-caffeinated indie-pop. The bombed-out soundscapes “Synthetik” and “Poison” fare much better because of their protracted-yet-deliberate sense of progression. Young’s macramé guitar work gradually enters into the mix in luminous ways on the former and his instrument takes on a venomous snarl with the latter.
Closer “Body Double” turns out to be one of HTRK’s more fully realized tracks. The desiccated percussion skitters into the distance while Standish embodies all the inferno-fueled revenge lyrics with a delicate balance of élan and strength. Granted, she still sings through a disaffected scowl half the time.
The efficacy of a release such as Work, which was painstakingly written and recorded in Berlin and London from 2006-10, is to be moody-as-fuck and give you a crippling case of the creeps. It largely succeeds on that base level. That being said, previous artists have made whole careers off this variety of titillation (see: Bauhaus or more recently Zola Jesus). Work (work, work) sounds more like a laborious task than a bracing trip into emotional bedlam and sexual anarchy.