I would like to use this space to rectify the blurb I wrote about Costa Rican musician and producer Jorge Elbrecht when I gushed over No Joy’s Motherhood last year. The passage where I intended to give him his due feels now like I was trying desperately to sound aloof, not wanting to admit that this person actually has a ton of clout beyond his own exciting solo career and great taste. Elbrecht has produced at least one of your favorite records, no doubt. No Joy, Winter, Twin Shadow, Wild Nothing, and Ariel Pink all signed Elbrecht on as producer at one point or another. Bands that sometimes I think only I’ve heard of are even on his credits: Oko Tygra’s “Heliumdrum” was one of my most played tracks in 2017.
And not to repeat myself, but his lush solo career gives us a glimpse into why the records that he produces are imbued with an extra-worldly aura. But of course, on Aftertouch, he wasn’t the only, or even central, artist to credit for the album’s minimalist charms. That goes to Toronto’s Absolutely Free. The quartet has been on the scene for some time, having operated under a separate moniker (DD/MM/YYYY) before the release of their debut self-titled LP in 2014. But they were never overly focused on the studio record cycle. Absolutely Free had long been known for using their music in other ways, whether in conjunction with another artist in a collaboration or to score a film (or re-score it, in the case of one of my favorite of the band’s works, “Re-Sounding the Films of Norman McLaren”).
Last year, they returned to the form we know all too well. Aftertouch is an enduring eight-track LP that sets out to add substance to an already dense catalog. And it does so in spades.
Among slow-churning movements, the Toronto group tells stories like Radiohead on edibles. While the tempo across the album never seems to fade to ambient levels, there is much meandering done by the instrumentation. You cannot place too much expectation on any of the melodies—not for any morbid reason, but rather because expectation can ruin the journey. An easy example comes on “Remaining Light,” which has a vibrant two-and-a-half minute intro that morphs quickly and also not. Elements drop in and fade out just as quickly, before moving to a new element altogether. When the drum rhythm emerges, everything just falls into place, in time for vocalist Matt King to begin a ballad about the infuriating tragedy of gun violence.
More justified rage comes across in other moments on the record, though rarely as frank. “Still Life” competes given its visual aid is a repurposed anti-capitalist multimedia piece by Christina Battle called “The Future Is a Distorted Landscape.” It contains imagery of destruction alongside resources we exploit, from food to minerals. Words flash on the screen that attempt to make the viewer join the present, but it in itself is a distorted view, which emphasizes the closed nature of our perspective. This message is taken to the next level against a song that could be described as white privilege in just two verses. The group in power can choose to turn away from the horrors experienced by those who aren’t as lucky.
“I know we all have a cross to bear
But I’ve been carrying this feeling around with me for a while
That I don’t care”
On the Aftertouch album page, four questions are the only commentary provided by the band as liner notes. Each corresponds to a classic song, by Nina Simone, Gary Numan, The Smiths, and blink-182 respectively. If I’m to follow the pattern, then we should add “Are They Signs?” to the list. It is a resounding (no pun intended) track, charging into the heavens with a boisterous synth intro. The lyrics imply a psychological descent, accented by a magnificent tension once the track’s percussion pushes the synth to the backseat.
Doubt riddles Absolutely Free’s question in a way that does not seem to affect the others they reference on Bandcamp. In fact, what ties the other tracks together is their conspicuous need to be loved. Numan and blink are a bit cheekier about it, but regardless, we’re all human. Genre, era, sexuality all be damned—we’re all human. And we crave safety and comfort. If we return to the opening track of Aftertouch, Absolutely Free does come to a conclusion. “Life is how you frame it,” so do what you can to survive in our untethered future. “You just sigh…”