By George Bass | 31 August 2010
What’s scarier than sustained interrogation? Sustained interrogation followed by cake and biscuits, that’s what. As the freakish hippie distorter the North Sea, Brad Rose has produced some of the finest wyrd folk sounds in years, perfect for spooking terror suspects in the country. Seriously, forget electrodes, pentathol, and being made to stand barefoot on milk crates; stick someone in the woods with one a North Sea LP, wait for the sun to go down and voila—they’ll confess to anything. So when word reached the folk fans that Rose’s new record was to be titled Mechanical Gardens, they were pretty confident in what to expect: queasy campfire acid yarns backed with a little more clatter, like the owl from Clash of the Titans, or something. As long as it was still a) mostly intimidating and b) mostly wyrd (and c] lit by organic tape hiss), they could cope with a little change; after all, Rose helps curate the Digitalis Industries roster, so he’s not afraid in branching, right? Very right, as it turns out. What no one saw coming was that Rose’s secret name change to Altar Eagle—which sees him teaming up Eden Hemming, his full-time Digitalis manager and wife—was his biggest endeavour to date, and the hallucinating pied piper has sidestepped completely from freak-folk into anthemic electric shoegaze. Lovers of North Sea were now genuinely scared. The dark lord of mischief had taken to selling confectionery! Confectionery, like they have in the kids’ shops!
If you expect conventional sweet stuff from Hemmings and Rose, though, expect to be pleasantly mislead: their debut might arrive on bright violet vinyl, but there’s where the bubblegum ends. In keeping with Rose family tradition, the Altar Eagle sounds have been salvaged from deleted tape experiments—ones that the couple decided to revisit and finish in their own bespoke style. Blocks of Rose’s Rorschach sounds glint off his wife’s bright beats, although Hemmings is much more than just a drum machine. She has an affinity for crystallising states of intoxication, and as you wade into the dance intro/sonar anthem of “Battlegrounds” you’ll realize how well her voice is suits shoegaze. She’s no Bilinda Butcher (for one thing, that voice feels distinctly unmanipulated), and the battlegrounds she sings of are drawn straight from brightest space—ecstatic fizzes, looped keyboards, rush after rush down the spine. Force Crystal Castles into a wind tunnel and you’ll get a somewhat similar effect: a hit of nostalgia from your favourite LCD games, all whipped up with analogue whooping.
Rose, on the other hand, has had a contact pacification, though still retains his kitten-strangler’s grasp on the principles that make him so freaky. Though now producing sounds that mirror n5MD at their more melodic (complete with frozen leaf-snapping beats), his own brand of syrup is a little more interesting, strained from the likes of Warpaint and chums but left to grow a skin and turn sour. On the zappy “B’nai B’rith Girls,” his wife’s flitting synths blink like partying glowworms while Rose plays with hellish grunts, pitting celestial popcorn against devil breath. The effect is a like an aural jacuzzi, or, as on its follower “Monsters,” an aural Hot Tub Time Machine where Brad and Eden roll things back to 1984. Remember M83 when they tried to re-score all the old John Hughes movies? Well here the young couple follow suit, building electric chicanes and a glucose rush into the fanfare of clearing a Sega game. Though Hemming’s lead is a little difficult to make out, buried under all that sparkling coral, you can hear “We’re all monsters” poking through the wreckage, a pay-off for her verses of mostly vocal exercises. Hey, this was the ’80s. Everyone projected back then.
The blend of regurgitated film score elements and stretched-tape shoegaze might be cloying in novice hands, but Rose and Hemming are both veterans, and can make functional structures from dated equipment the way a bushman can make soap from ash and sparrow fat. Even when you’re in a bad mood, it’s a relief to know that the brain behind Tulsa’s most warped acoustics has a voice, and that voice tells him, “Let your more harmonic wife take lead vocal.” On “Spy Movie,” possibly the Wayans’ brothers next inevitable phase, Hemmings gets to show off two of her voices: one which recites times tables through clenched teeth, the other as divine as the Múm sisters. As her hubby’s drum loops chug in the wind and move through Europa tones to Catherine wheels, you realize how much heart has been pumped into Mechanical Gardens, and what an unqualified success this sidestep has been. Rose has always made records that are leeringly frank—even while in North Sea magic mushroom mode, he takes time to include that pre-peak nausea—but with Hemming in tow to remind him how much nausea-suffers like to bop, and how you can still turn on a keyboard without betraying your integrity, his music is lined up for a big new audience. Their music is lined up for a big new audience: this is a record of equals, and the likes of tracks such as “Pour Your Dark Heart Out” shows how husband and wife fence with French lasers. Neither loses, and people are already touting Altar Eagle as one of the most promising new duos of the year. The festival rumours are spreading: for the first time Mr and Mrs Brad Rose could be playing to a crowd of dancing festival kids. Hopefully Rose’s old fans will be pleased. Hopefully they won’t want to sacrifice them.