by amy – April 16, 2019 in Music
If No Drum No Moog is lacking anything, it’s neither drums nor synthesizers. They bring both in equal measure to their unique brand of synthwave space rock, and not digital ones, either – real, acoustic drums and real, analog synths. In an elegant fusion of these principal elements they’ve crafted a great instrumental soundtrack to either your next highspeed interstellar chase or your more laidback suborbital flight.
Course-Poursuite, meaning high-speed chase, is the French trio’s third studio album. It varies from standard-length high energy tracks such as Course-Poursuite, 3:06 minutes to slightly longer, grooved-out tracks with an instrumental rock feel such as Monorail at 6:36 minutes.
The question I was inevitably forced to tackle when reviewing this album was whether to call it synthwave, which was my first reaction, or rock. These are quite different genres and not usually mixed to the degree that this group does. This album strongly begs to be considered electronic at first glance, from the fat synth leads and sci-fi vibe that feature on every track to the retro digital design on its cover. And yet, when one listens closely to the acoustic drumming that drives the songs, the occasional bass guitar and the song arrangements in general, this music reveals a distinctly rock-based style with an element of prog. So, is it more synthwave or rock? Is it somehow a perfect blend of the two?
Let’s take a closer look at the rock aspects. For one thing, the synthesizers have balls. Listen to the song Monorail for the low-end synth starting at 2:26. I feel like it wants so much to be a guitar in a 20-minute space rock epic. In fact, this whole song sits pretty well in that genre. Then there is what sounds like a guitar riff (but could be a synth) on La 305 verte at 2:37. Synth “riffs” like this, found across the album, have a testosterone-infused, “cool” vibe as rock guitars do, and as a result I have often reflected whether this album would also sound good if you replaced the synths with guitars and added some distortion pedal to make a space rock album along the lines of 35007‘s Liquid (see Voyage Automatique), Earthless‘ Rhythms From A Cosmic Sky or Hawkwind‘s In Search Of Space. Perhaps it’s that these synth lines sound like they were written for or on guitar, or perhaps it’s the presence of rock instruments that lends the songs the strong possibility of a lead guitar. In any case, there’s a lot of rock happening on this album.
The band self-identifies as “synth-prog-krautrock,” a fitting description except that I have yet to see the link to krautrock beyond the prog element. The drumming doesn’t use the hypnotical motorik beat that became the backbone of krautrock bands, pioneered by the likes of Neu! and Can (see the song Hallogallo by Neu! for an example of this recognizable drum pattern). NDNM uses more dynamic drum patterns, fills and time changes and thus has more in common with other kinds of rock music. And on a couple of tracks, the drummer lingers on the ride cymbal in a way that is strongly reminiscent of metal drumming (see Precinct 5.7 at 3:06, Cem-3340 at 4:25 and T.E.C.H.N.O.D.O.P.I.N.G at 1:20).
Yet despite the aforementioned rock elements, Course-Poursuite is also categorizeable as synthwave, playable alongside artists like GUNSHIP, Perturbator, and Carpenter Brut. The signature elements are there: the thick, ragged synth lines, the cinematic “soundtrack” aspect to their tracks, the nods to early sci-fi movies, the sometimes eerie vocal clips, the 80s-like reverb, the straightforward, uncomplex arrangements, the occasional gritty Bladerunner vibe that makes you want to don sunglasses while listening. There is a haunting, extraterrestrial synth on Cem-3340 that brings to mind the original Doctor Who theme music. Like a lot of synthwave, No Drum No Moog is joyous and lighthearted in its nostalgia, throwing in the odd sample that reminds one of old adventure or sci-fi movies.
There are just a couple of things that set this album apart from most synthwave. There is the lack of the four-to-the-floor beat of electronic dance music, meaning this album is not meant for the club. The cover art is also unlike typical synthwave covers that embrace neon-colored 80s horror themes, opting rather for a simple and stripped-down retro-technical grid design in Tron blue.
Highlight tracks: La 305 verte, Cem-3340, Monorail.
Attempts to categorize this music aside, which is not my aim when listening to music anyway, the great thing is how it all comes together. Each track builds up, locates a groove and settles in for a ride. This album is fun and energetic. The retro sci-fi vibe is appealing, the production superb and the instrumentation professional. Those old hardware synths have been dusted off and given a fresh, enriched sound thanks to 21st century production tools and the inspired touch of No Drum No Moog. So, hats off to this dynamic trio and their odd but addictive mix of synth and drums. Bring more synthesizers!