It’s been five long years since we have heard anything from the dark dance synthpop band Chromatics. That’s because the mastermind of the project, Johnny Jewel, has been busy. He released albums from two other music projects (Glass Candy and Desire), formed a label, produced other artists’ work and wrote a score for last year’s Drive that wound up unused (he released it anyway). All that made last year’s announcement of Kill For Love a pleasant surprise, and anticipation built as the band steadily leaked new songs. After many delays from the original January release date, Chromatics posted their album on iTunes last week in a very anti-climactic fashion. It didn’t matter though because the album, all 90 minutes of it, was finally here.
Even though Jewel is responsible for much of Chromatics’ style, it would be unfair to focus on him. Chromatics is not just Jewel; in fact, he wasn’t even an original member. Although Jewel’s style is readily recognizable in later Chromatics discography, the other band members make their presence clear with their stylistic modifications. Lead singer Ruth Radelet’s breathy, introverted soft vocals stand in stark contrast to Jewel’s menacing synthesizer. Guitarist Adam Miller’s riffs penetrate through heavy synth layers characteristic of Jewel’s other music projects.
In earlier albums the other members’ presence was subtle, blending into the background and letting Jewel do his thing. But something happened in the five long years between Night Drive and Kill for Love, for the latter reveals a surprisingly bold Chromatics at their most stylistically diverse. Album opener “Into the Black” is, of all things, a faithful synth-free cover of Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey.” Whether intentional or not, such an opener sends a clear message that Chromatics were not the same people five years ago.
Music critics have been slapping the band with the “Italo Disco” label, a subgenre of disco music from Italy in the 80s that died quickly enough to avoid scoring Saturday Night Fever yet slowly enough to influence modern electronic dance. Italo Disco is a misplaced moniker for the band because the subgenre is characterized by, for the lack of a better phrase, fabulous glamour. Chromatics, on the other hand, create bleak, post-punk-inspired atmospheres. If anything, their music is more like the work New Order made between Ian Curtis’ suicide and the release of “Everything’s Gone Green”: a mixture of very dark post-punk and disco with a heavy emphasis on electronic experimentation.
Such similarity makes itself clear with the title track. The sprawling four-minute track starts off with early New Order-like electronic arpeggios and guitars before dropping off to Radelet’s vocals. “Everybody’s got a secret to hide,” she sings with sad resignation, “Everyone is slipping backwards.” Radelet replicates a broken heart’s cinematic depression and desperation, retreating from the world to cope. She puts a pillow over her face, takes pills to feel all right, and waits for change even though the world stays the same. “But I killed for love,” she consoles herself uneasily, and then repeats it again in a more determined manner as a soaring guitar gives her self-consolation and anthemic quality. It is a preciously brief melody, and it still executes a mood so specific and relatable; all these things put it on a shortlist for one of the best songs of the year.
The title track may be concise, but the album as a whole is not. Kill For Love is uncannily similar to M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming: Both have their best song as the second track, have other great moments and have too much filler. Too often the songs drag out into pointless ambient experimentation that go nowhere and contribute nothing to the album. The worst offender is the 14-minute “No Escape,” an aimless minimal soundscape of found noise that the band didn’t even bother to include in the vinyl. The first half of Kill For Love is concise and screams “top album of the year,” but after “These Streets Will Never Look the Same,” the album drags into instrumentals that are just plain boring and detract from what could have been a comprehensively great album. That the album was already cut down from 37 tracks is troubling in itself. If the album was further whittled down to an hour, cutting out unnecessary songs and elements, the intense buzz surrounding the album’s release would have been wholly justified.
Nevertheless, the filler does not mean that the album is a letdown or that you should avoid it; other great tracks like “The River” and “Back From the Grave” make up for some of the bloat. It’s still one of the better releases of the year so far, and is a great starting point for those who have never heard the band’s music. Chromatics are onto something, but hopefully in the future Johnny Jewel will get better at electronic experimentation and the rest of the band will take an axe to their own songs.