[OLD SCHOOL SYNTH POP] In the past few years, the synthesizer—conspicuously absent from many of the best songs of the ’90s—has seen an incredible resurgence. From the cascading, sci-fi synths that Timbaland stacked up higher than spaceships to the monstrous riff that drives Phoenix’s “1901,” the aughts have seen all sorts of weird keyboards appear not only in throwback synth pop but also rock, hip-hop and even mainstream radio touchstones (Britney Spears, anyone?). Knowing this, it’s not much of a surprise that our little town is host to a burgeoning scene of new bands worshipping at the vintage synth throne.
At the top of the heap is local couple Patricia Hall and Ian Hicks, who record dark, romantic electronic music under the name Soft Metals. Formed just over a year ago, the duo already has its own unique aesthetic laid down on debut 12-inch EP The Cold World Melts: layered, pulsating key and drum-machine patterns straight out of a New Order song, fighting for aural space with Hall’s sultry pipes. The title track is easily the best thing here, as the synths turn sinister and the beat is actually danceable. Too often, though, this music comes off as headphone fodder when it should be aiming for the dance floor. “Voices” is promising, with an almost robotic spoken vocal take from Hall, but it soon evaporates into a pile of mushy noises that don’t really go anywhere.
Make no mistake, this stuff has no qualms about being retro: from the analog instruments to the hazy cover art, there’s nothing about Soft Metals that doesn’t scream 1983. But the band should know that you can sound and act old while still making music that’s vital and fresh. The music here is easy to dig, but when it comes time for their full-length, let’s hope Hall and Hicks remember we’re living in the 21st century. MICHAEL MANNHEIMER.
[BIGGER THAN HIP-HOP?] Sapient is quite easily one of the Northwest’s best hip-hop producers. His beats have grown so big and imaginative that there’s really not much room for comparison anymore: Sape is so musically competent, indulgent and dramatic he makes other beatsmiths look like Mötley Crüe to his Meatloaf.
The flipside of that coin is that his distinct production prowess always threatens to overshadow his lyricism. While rhyming is second nature to the Sandpeople mainstay (and standout couplets abound on his new disc, Barrels for Feathers), he’s fiercely committed to dual rap traditions of braggadocio and autobiography—meaning Sapient is often rhyming about how good Sapient is on his records. Whether the punchline-fueled-plotline is Sapient’s workaholism (on the diabolic-sounding “Hours”), his dedication to self-improvement (“One of the Many Ways”) or just plain clowning on other rappers (a half-dozen tracks), we’re intimately familiar with our host by the end of the disc; there’s bound to be some Sapient overload.
There are exceptions to the Sape-on-Sape rule that help keep Barrels for Feathers a really compelling disc—though, honestly, he could read Tom Clancy novels over some of these beats without ruining their impact—“Stronger” is a glowing tribute to his young daughter, and closer “Grown Up” reveals a manic-depressive side of the artist that’s both relatable and insightful. He sings hooks (quite well), features guest stars (Eligh and Pigeon John among them) and breaks verse-chorus-verse format throughout the disc, which successfully squelches any monotony of message on this, another exceptional hip-hop disc from the Sandpeople crew.
Still, one senses there’s another audible or two in Sapient’s playbook. Artists of his caliber simply shouldn’t be limited by genre, and Sape still feels the pressure of writing tightly structured rhymes into each track. That glass ceiling is starting to crack. I’m not saying Sapient should break up with hip-hop, but the two of them might do a little…experimenting together. CASEY JARMAN.
SEE IT: Soft Metals plays Sunday, Aug. 29, at Holocene with Arohan, Joey Casio and the Miracles Club DJs. 8:30 pm. $3. 21+. Sapient plays Satyricon Saturday, Aug. 28, with Debaser, Josh Martinez and guests. 9 pm. Cover. All ages.