Review Summary: Fun music: rock-informed electronics with a full, polished sound and live (or live-sounding) instruments.
Here’s what this band, with a nucleus of Amir Derahk and Ryan Shuck, former members of Orgy, is all about
: making electronics rock, not making rock electronic. They use standard pop forms and are heavily indebted to ‘80s era electro-pop bands, but decide to use their rock pedigree to liven up the sound with an alternately clean and heavy guitar attack (which may indeed be heavily modded synth) while relying on synth textures and electronic-styled beats in their songwriting. The album could be seen either as a rock album that fully embraces electronics or an electronic album that fully embraces the familiarity and power of live (or realistically rendered) instruments. Julien-K have created a very full-sounding, sometimes extremely heavy variation of electronic music, and they deserve to be heard.
Julien-K are not aspiring to any great thematic heights: the most profound they get is on the title track and opener, which, although well-written, deals with uncertainty about the future, and most of their lyrics focus mostly on the typical dysfunctional relationship (“Technical Difficulties”) and love song ideas (“Forever). They are clearly not breaking any new ground. This applies to the music too, which often threatens to develop into something bigger and more meaningful, sometimes even pushes a little towards the genuinely new and inspired, but always veers back into pure entertainment and synthesis of other styles of music. Which is not to say that the music does not invite repeated listening or lacks substance, but only that you’ll be listening to the album for its energy and craft instead of deep emotional impact or attachment.
As for the craftsmanship, the musical quality and diversity of the album, Death to Analog demonstrates an amazing array of styles (or rather moods) and great songwriting. A small sample of the variety of the album: the techno-freakout of “Technical Diffculties,” the rock-leaning “Kick the Bass,” the disco-informed “Spiral,” and the threatening and intense industrial track “Look At U.” Julien-K had Death to Analog ready to go for several years before its eventual 2009 release. The extra time they spent with the music, I suppose listening to it and polishing it, adds a layer of polish and consummation to the songs that I rarely hear. This album, with the exception of the overly steamy, silly “System De Sexe,” contains no filler, a feat for an album that reaches almost an hour of playtime, especially in the dance/electro scene that seemingly thrives on repetition. The tracks have been carefully planned with traditional pop/rock structures in mind and have been fully developed, making for a very tight album. All of the disparate parts come together in a seamless fashion, the prime example being “Kick The Bass,” which alternates between clean guitar and synth pedaling to heavy guitar, thick synth, and strong drumming, sounding perfectly natural the whole time. The instruments never cover up the singing of Ryan Shuck, who sounds confident and surprisingly versatile for his debut on vocals.
The major turn-off factors for this album are its ‘80s inspiration, which is unavoidable, and its party atmosphere. The instruments and songwriting recall the more open, poppier electronic music that found acceptance in rock and pop. However, I happen to like this change of pace, and it is not a detractor from the actual quality of the album, which sounds great the whole way through. The lyrics also seem undercooked and at times just shallow. The specific examples are the two sex songs, “Nvr Say Nvr,” with a chorus of “I might like you better if we slept together,” and the obvious “System De Sexe.” If you can tolerate or ignore these two songs, the rest of the album moves with energy and genuinely entertains, while leaving a deeper impact than most party- or dance-oriented albums.
Trivia: To the best of my knowledge Julien-K has recorded two tracks for use in the Sonic the Hedgehog video game franchise: “Waking Up” on Shadow the Hedgehog and “This Machine” on Sonic Heroes. While not as good (or just different) than the album tracks, they are quite fun to listen to for nerds like me.