During the late 90s, GusGus was a personal favourite of mine. I still rate the track ‘Is Jesus Your Pal?’ as one of my favourites of all time – its blend of icy minimalism and pure melody was a good decade and a half ahead of the xx or Beach House and is still a standard for them to reach. Through no fault on the part of GusGus, however, we’ve drifted apart since then. Changing distribution models, the demise of CD rack browsing, such things meant that I lost touch and haven’t actually heard any of their music since the rather excellent GusGus vs. T-World album, their take on the European minimalism that was meandering out of the Germanic countries around the turn of the millenium. So, when I got an e-mail asking if I was interested in reviewing their new album, Mexico, I jumped at the chance.
Having spent a couple of weeks listening to it now, I’m quite happy to say that GusGus have successfully trod that difficult line, neither remaining stagnant nor discarding what they do best. Their greatest strength, no matter what strain of electronica they explored, was always their ability to manipulate a small number of repetitive rhythms, hooks and samples in each track in a snake like manner that twisted and turned around, creating incredible surface complexity while remaining fundamentally simple. The stripped back, four member version of GusGus still possess this ability and still base their music around it. Another asset this ability creates is that high production values are imbued with detail grit. The sparkle and sheen of 90s electronic-futurism can sound sanitised and lifeless to ears in 2014, while the pendulum swing to deliberate sonic obfuscation in current neo-house, etc, can sound thin while the music drowns in affectation. Mexico avoids both pitfalls.
The bio throws around terms like â€œ90s trance…influencesâ€ which did have me worried (I quite detested that particular form) but, thankfully, this means that GusGus have taken elements and made them their own. Tracks such as ‘Crossfade’ use the 4-on-the-floor kick pump and side-chain compressed synths, but these are at a tempo far slower than trance’s cheesiest moments. In their hands, the sounds take on a weight that removes them from associations with glo-sticks and gurning, giving them a heavy seriousness instead. Likewise, 80s synth-pop references are merely references, not pastiches, so tracks like opener, ‘Obnoxiously Sexual’, utilise a mid-80s drum machine groove underneath darkened, cavernous, timeless pop, interspersed with raw orchestral embellishments. Meanwhile, the title track utilises the driest, dirtiest, filtered 303 variations to propel its dark moodiness forward. Some of the best moments, such as ‘This Is Not The First Time’ wouldn’t sound out of place, musically, on something like Underworld’s dubnoheadwithmybassman, aside from the vocals. The vocals themselves, across the album, use stylings often used in more Europop contexts, but the darkness of the music across the album means these voices create a tightly balanced tension rather than an outpouring of triteness. Lyrically, the dominant themes appear to revolve around sexual politics, with the odd religious metaphor thrown in, as they often have in the group’s back catalogue. ‘Obnoxiously Sexual’ uses some biting irony to critique contemporary sexual behaviour while ‘Crossfade’ uses a music production metaphor to create an effective, tender image of togetherness.
The album has a stylistic flow that holds it together well. The mix of a widescreen soundfield, making the music sound truly big, flies in the face of many current trends but the level of detailed sonic manipulation and just enough grit means the album is never clinical or overly polished. It’s hard to pinpoint similar work by other artists. The best comparison is probably GusGus’ own back catalogue. Repetition and knowing exactly what to do with a few exhilarating sounds in each track remain their strength and continue to help GusGus create engaging music.