By Steve Jones.
Light Asylum are the Brooklyn-based duo of Shannon Funchess and Bruno Coviell, and together they make electronic pop music. Light Asylum is their debut LP of 10 songs and 48 minutes.
I want to get this out of the way first. You need to listen to this album immediately and for one good reason: Shannon Funchess' voice. Oh my god, her voice. This record boasts of her prowess right away, with her first notes in "Hour Fortress" sung loud and low and deep, in a register most vocalists would shy away from. But Funchess is bold and uncompromising to either herself or the listener, and you will hear every part of every shout, every growl, and every gravelly word that is projected from her mouth. Even her higher registers in "Heart of Dust" are lovely to hear. It's theatrical and gender-bending and quite possibly the finest, fiercest vocal performance I have heard in any album this year. She sounds legitimately frightening in "At Will," and how often does a piece of music make you want to lock your doors?
What makes the intensity of her voice stand out even more is the fact it is paired with the mundanity of the current '80s new wavey post punky synth poppy revivalism. The production doesn't stray very far from the bombastic synths in the style of a Gary Numan or a Depeche Mode. There is a flavoring of the industrial sound added to some tracks, which, combined with Funchess' harsh lyricism, call to mind Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails. In principle, they have an excellent sound. In spite of the current ubiquity of a dark, gothic-esque techno pop sound, I do like the style, and Light Asylum have a distinctive and proficient vocalist in their favor.
While I like this album, it has a few prevailing flaws that stop me just short of loving it. It comes down to the production and the songwriting. The production is on the bland side of being too similar throughout the LP. It isn't as unflinchingly similar as the tracks on Purity Ring's Shrines, but more variety would have been appreciated. Halfway through the album, I felt like I had heard too much of the same synth sounds and the same drum machines. It's a shame that the other sounds don't do justice to the dynamic nature of Funchess' delivery. She adds a different personal touch to each track, such that you can almost tell what song you're listening to just by the presentation of her voice alone. It would have been nice if the production had done the same.
The other more glaring fault is that many of the songs are just too long with too little progression to justify their length. The average track works out to about five minutes. Now, there is nothing wrong with an album wanting to take a synth pop sound and expand it into slightly longer song forms, but you cannot just expand a 3 minute song into a 6 minute one by doubling the amount of times we encounter the verse and chorus. The middle two tracks "Sins of the Flesh" and "Angel Tongue" are the most egregious offenders, killing much of the record's momentum with uninteresting melodies that vamp for five and a half and six and a half minutes.
Unsurprisingly, the shorter tracks work out to be the better ones. "Heart of Dust" is the brightest song on an album clearly not concerned with being upbeat (song titles like "Shallow Tears" and "End of Days" should make this obvious). It's an example where the production and Funchess work symbiotically in a way that would have behooved more songs, and there's a sense of movement between the beginning and the end. "Hour Fortress" is my favorite of the classic-sounding techno pop songs on here and a great introduction to the album as a whole. "At Will" also deserves mention just for having the most unrelenting and invigorating vocal barrage of the record. And, to contradict my earlier statement, "Shallow Tears," despite it being one of the lengthier tracks, utilizes an effecting combination of trance-like synths, crashing drums, and Funchess' bellowing to build intensity towards a satisfying conclusion.
Despite my complaints, Light Asylum comes together to be one of the more interesting and more redeeming collections of '80s-fueled nostalgia this year. While many albums of its kind sound neutered, there's a refreshing sense of danger and aggressiveness to Light Asylum's approach. It's rough around the edges, and the production and songwriting don't quite match the ambition, but at least they are doing something distinguishable.
Score: Decent 7
(Steve Jones thinks Shannon Funchess should do an album of lullabies next. If you have your own ideas, send them by his Twitter @vestenet.)