“I make copies.” That’s how the former dance-rock princess Vanessa Briscoe Hay described her life in the 1987 documentary “Athens, GA/Inside Out,” and it may be the saddest sentence in the history of music. Briscoe was the lead singer for Pylon, the seminal ’80s band that proved goth rock and dance music were not mutually exclusive. After just three albums Pylon got bored and broke up, leaving Briscoe to work in a Xerox shop, and fans like me heartbroken.
But now we have Rhythm of Cruelty. The duo, from Edmonton, Alberta, are not the second coming of Pylon. But they partly fill that void with Saturated, an album of dance music from Hell.
Saturated’s poppy rhythms make you want to switch on the strobe light and get bumpin’. The bass lines are disjointed in a Joy Division kind of way, and thudding electric drum beats drive the songs. Rhythm of Cruelty uses computerized effects to make up for its lack of manpower, which can make a band sound bigger and better or kind of pathetic—like they advertised for a drummer and nobody showed. Fortunately, Ian Rowley is a brilliant self-amplifier. The song “Day In, Day Out” is so relentlessly fast you’ll dance to the point of spontaneous combustion.
But beneath all that toe-tapping fun lurks a layer of grit and anger that nudges Saturated into the realm of punk and goth rock. Searing instrumental noise erupts periodically into the energetic rhythm section. The sound builds slowly, agonizingly, but never quite explodes. Scratching rhythm guitar (as well as the occasional shimmering strum) takes a drill to your ears.
It is the lead guitar that really elevates Saturated above mere dance music. Rowley plays slow, creeping guitar riffs that bend and move from note to note until he takes one step beyond the scale, sounding both horribly wrong and wonderfully right. You know the incidental music on “Freaks and Geeks”? Rowley’s guitar sounds like that on meth.
On Saturated, the vocals matter but the lyrics don’t. Mostly the words are inaudible—for the choruses, singer Brandi Strauss repeats song titles over and over. But her hovering, ethereal voice works like an instrument itself, bringing human warmth to the computerized cool.
I find most dance music embarrassing, but I really liked this album, it brings the punk attitude but never forgets the beat. Thank you Rhythm of Cruelty, for bringing back a world where sequins and bad attitudes co-exist.