Give ‘Em What They Want: Modeselektor’s Monkeytown Reviewed

Modeselektor is Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert, two Berliners who with this, their third LP, manage to change and stay the same simultaneously.  They show no sign of altering the often glitchy, hip-hop infused electronic dance blueprint that’s worked so well for them in the past, and why should they?  Monkeytown basically has everything you could want from a good electronic dance album; it displays a delicious sort of cohesiveness in its diversity.  From guest rappers and urban-influenced tracks to ethereal, hypnotic swathes of sound interspersed with bleeped staccato hiccups, Monkeytown manages to never sound staid.  More than that, it’s a thrilling listen from front to back and rewards close, thoughtful listening as well as uninhibited dancefloor enjoyment.

“Blue Clouds” opens the album and sets the tone well in that its beats are frantic with a pervading sense of calm by way of a slower, dreamy figure occurring at the same time as well as a relatively stripped-down sound.  In the world of Monkeytown this is the sound of austerity and serves as a jumping-off point for the rest of the album.  This smoother, sophisticated sound is picked up again eight tracks later on “Green Light Go,” another moody cut in which increased electronic punctuation slowly builds, then unexpectedly falls away to a passage comprised solely of vocoder-processed vocals.  The song builds up again in layers of voice and synth, upbeat yet melancholy.

The hip-hop contingent is present and accounted for on “Prententious Friends” and “Humanized”, the former a rather ridiculous take on the snobby acquaintances of its title.  “Pretentious Friends,” featuring guest rapper Busdriver, injects a shot of humour into the album.  The music, however, is unflagging, with Modeselektor’s beats perfectly accentuating Busdriver’s flow.  There’s also a fun vocal figure near the end of the track, with some unusual harmonies and reiteration of the song’s title.  “Humanized” features Anti Pop Consortium and is an entirely different affair: underneath a stuttering beat is a far more urgent vocal delivery that gives yet another dimension to this varied album.

Possibly Modeselektor’s most famous fan is Thom Yorke, whose voice graces “Shipwreck” and “This”, lending those tracks a compelling strangeness that’s difficult to define.  On “Shipwreck” Yorke’s vocals recall his work on his own solo album, The Eraser, due in no small part to the hyperactive, uneven beat working below his voice and bringing a sense of urgency to the song.  This feeling is intensified by the highly manipulated sound of the vocal track: Yorke’s voice sounds familiar yet distant, buried in twitchy rhythms – the distorted quality of his voice tells us that he’s losing this fight, and the last few seconds of the track seal his fate; the bass rises ominously in the mix as his voice becomes overwhelmed by a simplified beat, and then it’s all over.  “This” features Yorke’s vocals more prominently, at least in regard to volume.  Here that finely sliced vocal track becomes rhythm along with everything else, and another vocal track is added just after the two-minute mark, this one providing melody instead of texture.  These two tracks voiced by Yorke bring a haunting component to Monkeytown that perfectly complements the electronics at work behind Szary and Bronsert’s music.

Dance time gears up on “Berlin” a slower groove featuring vocals by Miss Platinum.  This track has a lot more mainstream appeal than some others on Monkeytown, clearly due to its far less erratic feel and melodic pop vocal.  “Berlin” does break down just past the midpoint of the track, with Miss Platinum’s multi-tracked voice surrendering to the distorted soundscape surrounding her, but I think it’s this track’s tempo that keeps it within the realm of mainstream pop even when descending into electronic weirdness.  Indeed, the weirdness drops off at the end of the track, leaving Miss Platinum’s soulful voice to shine on its own.  “Grillwalker” immediately kicks off into such a deliriously appealing syncopated groove, you totally don’t realize it barely has a melody.  That clean beat devolves into atmospheric washes of sound about three-quarters of the way through, but the tempo is picked up again promptly and the reintroduction of that cheeky little figure feels unequivocally affirming.

While it’s true that personally my least favourite tracks are the ones that contain rapping, it certainly isn’t fair to say that those tracks stand out as alien amidst an otherwise cohesive whole.  Monkeytown covers a ton of different ground, but no single track here feels out of place.  Rather, these stylistic ideas seem to appear in pairs or groups, ensuring that a style or genre appears at least twice on the album with a lot of overlap besides.  Nothing really stands out as strange or unfitting because everything is strange here, keeping the listener interested but more importantly creating a diverse album of disparate influences and ideas that are connected through their seeming disconnection.


Modeselektor – Shipwreck

Modeselektor – Berlin

Modeselektor – Green Light Go

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