Duologue - NEVER GET LOST

by Rich Morris Rating:5 Release Date:2014-09-08

There’s quite a lot of this type fragile, minimalist electronica balladry/alt-R&B around right now, but London five-piece Duologue already staked their claim to this sound with their debut album, Song & Dance, last year. Back then, people noted the sonic similarities to Radiohead’s Kid A, along with singer Tim Digby-Bell Yorke-a-like falsetto yowl.

However, the intervening year-and-a-half has rendered their sound more voguish, with their skittering beats and emotive songs slotting well next several high-profile acts including FKA twigs, Banks, and How to Dress Well. All these artists have been around for a while, of course, but it does feel like their overlapping styles, referencing club sounds in an alternative context, and penchant for desolate, lovelorn anthems are reaching something like critical mass.

So what do Duologue bring to the pity party this time around? Well, opening track ‘Memex’ starts of like a lost Sigur Rós number, all haunted, echoing piano and beats crackling like autumn leaves, with Digby-Bell’s heavily treated vocal proving that, in the right hands, Auto-Tune needn’t be the harbinger of the apocalypse. Its glacial atmosphere is ruptured by abrupt chord changes which eventually lead to an unexpected outbreak of Primal Scream-style industrial electro-rock. And then it’s over.

Second track ‘Correctness’ takes its cues from Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser. Over stuttering beats and a frozen soul backing, Digby-Bell wails the refrain “Where has it gone?” I think on a song such as this, you’ll know if Duologue’s music is for you or not. Personally, although I admire the intricate, precise production, I struggle to locate what’s motivating this mope-fest.

‘Forests’ demonstrates that the band have ambitions to break out of their electronica cul-de-sac. With its acoustic guitars, strings and Digby-Bell’s arms-aloft emoting, it’s like Mumford & Sons riding their combine harvester over a Matmos production. It definitely has cross-over potential, but I don’t really mean that as a compliment.

Much better in their accessibility are ‘Sibling’ and ‘Traps’. The former is a bruised midnight soul number with a club feel on which Digby-Bell’s vocal really shines. By taking his pitch down a notch, he reveals a care-worn quality to his voice and shows there’s more to him than just squawking like he’s had ‘Idioteque’ on repeat for a year. When he simpers (there’s no other word for it) “My heart is in your hands,” he also makes it plain that, like How to Dress Well, behind Duologue’s avant-tronic dabblings are a set of surprisingly direct, even obvious, pop songs.

‘Traps’, meanwhile, shifts between queasy Kid A-isms, house revival beats, and what sounds like a very effective stab at synthesised Burt Bacharach chamber pop. Elsewhere, ‘All Night Shows’ deals in post-dubstep chill and thud, resulting in the most sonically interesting and aggressive number here. It leads nicely into the synth-pop tinged ‘This is Happening’, which sounds like an updated version of the stuff Depeche Mode were blasting out to stadiums full of American teens in the late 80s.

There’s no faulting the ambition and variety on Never Get Lost, nor its delicate, layered production. It’s an incredibly well put-together album, but it also drags and wears one down a little in one sitting. Apart from brief, fluttering moments, there’s no light here but also no real explanation of why we should invest in such relentless emotional bleakness, such cold misery.

When you can make out a lyric, it tends to be a buttock-clenching cliché (such as “Give me your heart” on ‘Drag & Drop’). It’s not compelling in the way, say, Depeche Mode’s pervy nihilism was. Also, frankly, Digby-Bell’s voice just grates on me. Like Tom Krell of How to Dress Well, he seems pathologically incapable of holding back; almost every line is wailed out like it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to him. It’s exhausting.

All that said, Duologue are making very interesting music and doing it well. They’re combining multiple sounds and genres expertly and with considerable élan. I just wish they’d cheer up a bit, get angry, push the energy levels up a little – something more than this deep-frozen sulk. 

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