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Album Review: Shlohmo - Dark Red

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

It's been an interesting couple years for Henry Laufer, a.k.a. Shlohmo. Just about this time last year, we were all waiting on pins and needles for a collaborative EP to drop between Shlohmo and R&B singer Jeremih, spinning the new single "No More" to death and begging for a set in stone release date. But the deal with Def Jam fell through. Shlohmo's own WeDidIt dropped the No More EP for free (and if you don't have it, download it. Now.), and Jeremih's LP (for which the label didn't want the collaborative EP to upset the momentum of) is still nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, Shlohmo's own momentum, building off of recent production work with the likes of Banks, got bumped. Up and coming indie producer gets snubbed off promised major label debut - sounds like a pretty familiar story, right? Well thankfully, that's where the familiarities stop. Rather than sell his soul to make pop trash or waste time sitting around, Laufer went to work on something entirely new. This new project, the proper follow up to his Laid Out EP from two years ago, would be unlike anything else he'd done before. After signing with True Panther for distribution and dropped the "Emerge From Smoke" single, we now have in our hands Shlohmo's finest work yet: Dark Red. Fearless, brash, and entirely unorthodox, this is an electronic record that only Laufer could make. There's a great reason why Laufer sold prayer candles in anticipation of the record. If he keeps his up, he'll be the new god of the independent electronic music scene in no time.

Whether it be "Later" from Laid Out or "Let It Go" from No More, there is substantial historical evidence that Shlohmo goes bigger, braver, and more introspective than 90% of the producers out there. He keeps the heart beating in a world of digital overlay and quantized measurement just by being himself. There's an essence of discovery - an innate exploration - that flows throughout the sound of his music. Sometimes, it might be through brilliant light, while at other times its through impenetrable darkness. But it's this feeling that guides the Shlohmo tracks we've seen from him in the past couple years. In this, we've also seen a sharp transition in the live setting from a party god dropping the All That theme song in the middle of sets to almost becoming a fellow spectator to the sound. Laufer has peeled back the skin of the genres he works with and he's feeling around on the inside trying to find something organic.

Shlohmo takes all of this up a notch with Dark Red from minute 1 if only in that the whole thing feels entirely analog. Massive, floor-rattling bass is completely absent here. There are no cheap crowd participation tricks. Rather, Laufer has opted for a live-heavy recording setting that favors the captured interpolation rather than the delivery - something honestly no one else I can think of is trying to do that could be in his competition. After the quintessential synthesizer screams of "Ten Days and Falling", "Meet Ur Maker" gives us a sample of this new presentation perfectly. The track mixes drum n bass styling with a hip-hop driven ambient wonder, complete with a wobbling synth-turned-horn section. The track builds like magic and makes you want to dance just as much as it makes you want to cry. When the bottled energy finally explodes and all of the filters disappear, it's like seeing a deity. Here, it's unquestionably evident that Laufer has dialed in his balance between production, instrumentation, and execution. The track isn't meant to cater to vocals. It isn't even meant to cater to a great set of club speakers. It's an intimate experience that puts a chapter in a very intentional full length record. In all of these things, Shlohmo is outdoing the competition. But maybe more importantly, he's outdoing himself.

"Meet Ur Maker" spills into "Buried", the emotional pinnacle for Dark Red until its closer. "Buried" is led almost entirely by electric guitar, filtered to the point of destruction over a slow, driving drum track that feels like it could split your soul in two given the right opportunity. The guitar solo is a repetitive chant, like a cry out for help as the energy builds to unprecedented levels. The song is nothing if not gargantuan - seven minutes can barely contain all that is going on here, and after seven you could still take double.

"Buried" is followed by the album's other lead single, "Emerge From Smoke", which sees more impressive use of analog guitar and drums together in ways that the genre seems to bypass in preference of perfection. Laufer already knows how to make a digital track perfect - he's done it again and again and again on his past releases. Thus, for Dark Red, he's in the process of breaking one of the final barriers that plagues his genre and pumping life into the dance experience. "Buried" and "Emerge From Smoke" aren't exactly your average dance pop mantra, but they hook you and they don't let go. They are small opuses from a modern master.

Much of Dark Red isn't conducive to text-based description - it's an album that requires a full, undistracted listen, with only images to play on in your head. "Apathy" (featuring WeDidIt collaborator D33J) is an exercise in extreme melancholy over a pounding hip-hop track. "Relentless" and "Ditch" are both somber explorations of hi-hat perfection. After the quiet, chiming interlude of "Remains", fading revisits the drum n bass experimentation begun on "Meet Ur Maker" in blistering form. The track features a textbook, spacious, hallucinatory Shlohmo melody, while the foundation miles below is a menacing, speeding bullet of a track. The combination is as refreshing as ever. Time and time again on Dark Red, Shlohmo seems to take the status quo and turn it on its head through use of live recording and small imperfections. It's this that grounds Dark Red in the real world - the one that Laufer is trying to make a comment on with his work.

Dark Red ends with perhaps its brightest and most definitive moment: "Beams". With its placement on the record and the energy it puts out, the skittering, climactic track is the perfect exclamation point at the end of this sixty minute masterpiece. After exploring a wide array of emotions and sounds and scopes, "Beams" pulls it all together - the hip-hop, the electronica, the drum n bass, and the songwriting - to put a perfect wrap-up coda at the end of it all. The video for "Beams" feels about the same as listening to it. It's a nonstop bender, complete with all kinds of substances, streaking, graffiti streaking, and just graffiti. But when you see the few non-blurred faces in the video, there's nothing but bliss. Regardless of the state of sobriety, the characters herein are in another place, another world that they are consciously taken to. Shlohmo has been taking us to this place for years, through brilliant work as a producer and a DJ, stringing together sets and sounds that no one else could come up with. But as he's gotten older and dialed in on his craft, he's found a way to bottle that experience. The haze of red is no longer a mist that he steps into and then leaves - rather, it's his gift to the world. That's the place he gives you an unmistakable picture of on "Beams". It's a place we'll get to live in on Dark Red for quite some time.

Dark Red is out today on True Panther! Grab it on CD or vinyl at your local record store. Shlohmo will embark on his first ever live A/V tour this month in support of Dark Red. That's right, no crazy house party DJ set like we've seen from Laufer again and again - this time, it's all about Shlohmo, and all about making these tunes come to full, vibrant life out in front of the smoke instead of behind it. That being said, "Buried" and "Beams" are going to sound incredible. For support, Shlohmo is bringing along some excellent representatives of his Wedidit crew: Purple (also live A/V) and Nick Melons. Grab tickets for the April 24 Neumos gig here.

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