There is something inherently challenging about music written to sound like it comes from another time. The current fascination with analog synthesizers among more than a few electronic artists is no different than the long list of indie rockers who fell in love with jangly guitar pop a couple of decades after it peaked at the end of the 1960s.
The music challenges listeners because it is so clearly out of step with current norms. It challenges artists to produce material that connects to another era, and at the same time feels relevant in the here and now. It even challenges music writers: How does one evaluate original work most recognizable to 50-year-olds, but marketed to 20-year-olds?
Put another way, is it possible for music that’s meant to sound old to in any way sound new?
Field Hymns Records has two new releases that put that question to the test.
Bolabit’s 14-track self-titled cassette sounds like it was lifted straight from a Stranger Things episode. This is kitsch taken to a loud, synthetic extreme. Field Hymns’ marketing department describes it as “Zombi covering Air covering Zombi.” That is to say Bolabit sounds like a throwback covering a nostalgia act covering a throwback. (Pittsburgh’s Zombi does refer to themselves as “space-rock overlords” after all.)
Is it good? Mostly, yes. The duo features live drums along with synthesizers, which fills the end-product out nicely.
COPS’ self-titled seven-track cassette is the stronger of the two. While still firmly based on 1980s-era synth, this Berlin-based act is pushing industrial music into the 21st century by sheer force of will. The songs are hypnotically strong, and the playing is solid. It’s a very sharp album.
So, is it possible for self-consciously old-sounding music to feel new? When it’s done well, absolutely. Eschewing the latest studio trickery for an old-school vibe can be a pretty radical move. It signals a respect for a bygone era. More than that, it creates the kind of limitations that some artists thrive within.
We’re looking forward to more from Field Hymns.