Album Review: Pantha du Prince - Black Noise

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Pantha du Prince - Black Noise
Pantha du Prince - Black Noise (Image courtesy of Rough Rade Records)

Pantha du Prince's Black Noise, which came out Febraury 9 on veteran indie label Rough Trade, is a curious album that straddles a handful of already-blurry genre borders. Pantha du Prince, the musical alter-ego of German producer Hendrick Weber, has made a career out of welding traditional Detroit techno and deep European house to intricate textures and spacey styles influenced by '80s and '90s British alternative bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride.

Yet Weber has taken his affinity for the trippier and more experimental end of the rock spectrum to new heights on Black Noise, which at times seems like a concerted effort to slip further into indie visibility. Yet this isn't so much a pop crossover as a sly sideways step into one of the most intriguing musical trends of the last five years: the increased viability of electronic dance music as a legitimate part of the indie "rock" landscape.

Black Noise, admittedly, is hardly a rock album in any sense; it features almost no vocals and almost no songs shorter than five minutes. However, it's also not through-and-through techno. Partly, this happens in spite of Pantha du Prince. Dance music's once self-sustaining vitality and originality have been withering for at least a decade, so it's both telling and unsurprising that he needs to venture elsewhere to pursue his electro-psychedelic impulses.

Yet by making the leap from the techno purists' label Dial Records to British indie figurehead Rough Trade Records, and also by recruiting Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem members to assist him on Black Noise, Weber is also announcing a very deliberate set of coordinates for his mutation away from straightforward electronic music. One could easily make a case for Animal Collective and LCD Soundsystem as the two bands furthest at the forefront of indie's incorporation of electronic textures and rhythms, and Weber, it seems, is happy to return the favor. Instead of those bands' dance-tinged indie, he delivers a vision of how techno could assimilate the playful technicolor vibes of '00s indie rock's youngest and freshest voices.

Viewed this way, Black Noise finds its conceptual and emotional centerpiece in "Stick to My Side," which, thanks to a winning contribution from Animal Collective's Panda Bear, is the only vocal-driven track on the album. Powered by a loop of bells, muted beats, and assorted bizarre textures, the track builds to an ethereal plateau before Panda Bear's vocals come in. His uplifting, echo-drenched refrain—"Stick to my side/ Why stick to the things that I've already tried?"—repeats so many times that you'd think the track's almost-eight-minute length would be more grating, but instead it just adds to the ever-accumulating musical bliss.

The track is followed by the awesome "A Nomad's Retreat," which starts with a series of quiet, sinister textures before plunging into a dizzying abyss of repetitive but hooky synths. Opening track "Lay in a Shimmer" is similarly awe-inspiring, offering a slowly swelling mixture of gentle electronic textures and hypnotically repeating beats.

"Behind The Stars," the album's single, opens with a deeply textured drone that erupts into an elastic, bassy beat before splintering further into an ever-richer sonic palette. By the middle of the track, smatterings of heavily processed vocals are being slowly drowned out by the throbbing impacts of what seems to be a galaxy-sized xylophone.

The album closes with a trio of gentle, shoegazey numbers with German titles. The narcotic sway of "Welt and Draht" isn't a million miles from My Bloody Valentine and company, or their more recent heirs in the "chillwave" or "glo-fi" micro-scene, such as Toro y Moi, Ducktails, and Neon Indian. "Im Bahn," the LP's shortest track at just under three and a half minutes, takes the blissed-out vibe even further, featuring wordless sampled vocals, a slippery acoustic guitar loop and little else. Closer "Es Schneit," built on an unidentifiable clanging percussion sound, is slightly more rhythmically driven than the other two, but its swaths of light-headed texture are still at the center of the track's mystique and charm.

As a largely instrumental album with only one of its eleven songs clocking in at under five minutes, Black Noise may seem daunting for electronic music non-initiates. But the album's curious, playful exploration of rhythm and sonic texture isn't a million miles from what a lot of new U.S. bands are doing, and fans of the more psychedelic strains of the last two decades' indie, rock, and pop will find much to love in Pantha du Prince's heady sound.