Pharaohs Replicant Moods(100% Silk) Buy it from Insound
Listening to Los Angeles four-piece Pharaohs’ debut album reminds me of something their 100% Silk label owner Amanda Brown once said: “What I hate is when the music media applauds rock genres for being golden, like the sweet sounds of the 60s and 70s, and then trashes dance genres for being too referential of disco or house.” It’s very true that music reviewers are ready to jump upon EDM producers for sounding dated, and perhaps there’s something illogical about that. The artists on 100% Silk (and also on its parent label, Not Not Fun) share a common aesthetic impulse in their kitschy throwbacks to “dated” styles of electronic music, and none more so than Pharaohs.
This album instantly reminds me of a recently-reissued Chicago house classic, the self-titled 1989 album by Virgo. Listening to a group like Virgo nearly 25 years on, one can’t help but respond to the limitations of their cheap drum machines, and the obvious imprecisions of their analogue synth recordings – but other than Virgo’s compositional brilliance, that’s half of the appeal. Pharaohs are self-consciously emulating that rudimentary magic that allowed Virgo to create something actually bolstered by its mistakes. I admire their attempt to spiritually return to a time when house music was pure analogue guesswork – back when entire genres could be spawned from the limitations of analogue devices, like when Phuture accidentally invented acid house when they couldn’t figure out how to program their Roland TB-303.
There’s a few moments on Syzygy where a synth meanders out of tune like the (literally) heatsick synthesiser improvisation on the title track of Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra – a technical error caused by the limitations of non-heat-resistant analogue equipment, which turned out to be the album’s best-remembered moment. Pharaohs cherish such mistakes. Miraculous Feet, a vehicle for 100% Silk mainstay Maria Minerva’s inspired guest spot, is another example of a sense of woozy imprecision giving the song a sense of productive instability, in that it ventures into more subversive territory than the disco hits it pastiches.
I want to agree with Brown that music should be judged regardless of its technological situation, but then it’s difficult to avoid responding to the cheap Casio-grade drum machines that blip their way into the titular opener without rolling one’s eyes. It becomes all too obvious how much of a limitation such unwieldy machines must have been, and that capacity to make mistakes which makes their use more intriguing on those 80s releases no longer factors in. And yet, in spite of Pharaohs’ disingenuousness, it becomes clear that these guys really know how to structure a dance track. It builds and swells in all the right places, subtle textures gently ebbing in, melodic hooks never outstaying their welcome – and with an inspired minor-key diversion two minutes in, which sends the track veering off into an edgier and more unpredictable direction. This impeccable structuring is also evinced on F&M Suite, and especially on Everything, an excellent example of a sample being carried boldly across many terrains in one track.
Nonetheless, I feel like they could have used contemporary production’s wider scope to really create something revelatory here. It’s a shame they don’t take more chances. Or perhaps the album could have had more of a performative gusto – I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing Pharaohs live, but the anticipation of a live Balearic house band with a conga player and saxophonist isn’t really matched by what comes across from this studio recording. Conga drums pop up on Again but are swiftly drowned out by the unsavoury tones of their drum machine toms, when the track might have been more intriguing had it been the other way round.
It works because you can tell how much Pharaohs love house music, how much they seem to wish they’d been there back when it was taking off in the mid-80s. Anything less than a thoroughly genuine engagement with what they’re doing, and they would not have produced such a satisfying tribute to the style. Coming out just in time for summer, Replicant Moods (a misleadingly sci-fi title) would perfectly soundtrack a beach party that overspills into a hot night.1 May, 2013 - 04:53 — Stephen Wragg