Album Review: DIGITS – Where Do You Belong?
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The title of DIGITS’ new release is a question the Toronto expat may well be asking himself these days.
Earlier in the year he dropped Death And Desire while he was based in London (UK). A few months later sees DIGITS (aka Alt Altman) residing in Berlin with a new offering ready for release, though he still stays extremely active and informed in the Toronto and Canadian independent electronic scene through his blog and concert series SILENT SHOUT.
DIGITS’ music is self-described as electro-pop, and it seems he’s undertaking a pilgrimage to the birthplaces of the genre. Synth-pop bands in the UK in the early 80s used the groundwork put down by krautrock – which emerged in Germany during the 1970s – and brought about the idea of incorporating electronic technology into popular music to create a modernistic ambiance. Fitting then that Where Do You Belong sees DIGITS explore a different, much more stripped-down, and retro sound than some of his previous work.
Where Do You Belong sees DIGITS particularly gloomy, sad and in pain, yet it also puts forth some of DIGITS’ happiest, and pretty-sounding melodies and tunes.
From the opening of the first track, it’s clear DIGITS is trying something new on this release. DIGITS’ music has always been totally technology-based (synth, drum machine, laptop), and he used the capabilities of this modern technology and production to sound much bigger than music typically created in a bedroom; to sound cutting-edge, modern. However here DIGITS uses technology in the post-modernistic way it sounded in the 80s: futuristic, detached, remote, robotic – but simplified, as back in the 80s synthesiser technology and sounds were obviously nowhere near the advanced standard of today.
The other aspect of 80s synth/electro-pop that DIGITS embraces is the contradiction between the impersonal sound of the technology and the emotion of the lyrics. Where Do You Belong sees DIGITS particularly gloomy, sad and in pain, yet it also puts forth some of DIGITS’ happiest, and pretty-sounding melodies and tunes.
The title track opener is a testament to this: it sounds icy, due to the emphasised electronic sound of the instrumentation, yet the major key and chirpy melody belong to the happiest of pop songs. Soon DIGITS’ trademark gentle, hushed vocals with indie sensibilities enter the song to create a soft yet emotional feel, which enhances the pain and sadness of the heartbreak-themed lyrics.
Modern Mess and So Cold feature a darker take on 80s dance beats and smooth RnB/retro disco beats respectively, mainly due to the minor key in each of the songs. The homage to 80s synth sounds continues, as does the uncomplicated and stripped down instrumentation and song structure.
The opening riff of Eight Long Years is one of the best examples of the 80s synth-pop influences on this release (think DURAN DURAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, etc). This merges with modernity when the ultra-cute accompaniment and beats join in, while the breakdown adds a nice point of difference for the song halfway through.
DIGITS slows things down a bit and brings back a darker, more despondent sound with the smooth Lonely Road. Looking For The Cure then follows, opening with an upbeat late-80s dance-inspired organ-sounding riff, joined by a danceable bassline and drumbeat. It sounds out of character to hear DIGITS almost positive and optimistic in the lyrics on this track: “Don’t even know what I’m hurting from but I’m looking for the cure”.
Overall, the release showcases elements that range from electro-pop songs with catchy melodies, retro and quirky synth sounds, early dance, smooth disco and RnB beats, and an innate ability to marry positivity and sadness through contrasting sounds.
In the final track Always, DIGITS manipulates his inert technology uncharacteristically invoking an emotion in-line with his lyrics, as he creates a sense of desperation – yet hopefulness; of nervous anticipation. This is evident in his chord progression, and in the always-moving, spacey notes of his accompaniment, while additions like the synth line about halfway through the track work to build the intensity of the song to the point that it almost overwhelms the listener. But it doesn’t; the song ending unresolved, just like the lyrics.
Overall, the release showcases elements that range from electro-pop songs with catchy melodies, retro and quirky synth sounds, early dance, smooth disco and RnB beats, and an innate ability to marry positivity and sadness through contrasting sounds. The best tracks are those like Where Do You Belong and Eight Long Years, which push the contrast to the outer levels by setting painful lyrical content against super sweet, catchy, pretty, well-written pop songs.
Where Do You Belong evokes a very real sense of emotional isolation through its – at times – eerie ambience, effectively portrayed by the contrast between the highly emotional lyrics and the impersonal nature of the technology used to create the instrumentation of the songs. And although the outcome of this isolation is an interesting, smart, danceable piece of true electro-pop, the pain and sadness – the emotion – are all so tangible that we hope DIGITS soon finds some respite in a place to belong himself.