“Club Meds” is a busy and chaotic blend of synth and noise that creates a joyride of musical exploration and adventure for listeners. With his fourth studio album, Dan Mangan is not afraid to smear together sounds of old and new, compiling pieces from synth samples and heavily melodic vocals. “Club Meds” is a wild, dizzying and fearless exploration into the new musical world, where the 21st century’s popular diversity of sounds must rely on old school musicality to succeed — and succeed “Club Meds” does.
The album’s opening track, “Offred,” features slow and carefully layered synth beats which bring the listener into spaces that feel at once old and new, as though audiences have been trapped between blinking lights in a pinball machine. A voice repeats an inaudible word on loop before a driving guitar and screeching chords enter the mix of instrumentation. And then there is Dan Mangan’s voice, pure and stripped of electronic assistance to balance the precision of a computer-based sound. A bare-bones opposite that lies in contrast to the electronic backbone of the song, the track nearly veers into the campy feel of a “Final Fantasy” soundtrack. The videogame parallel does not escape Mangan, who, perhaps inadvertently, names the sixth track “XVI.” Mangan’s vocals act as a strong overture, singing lyrics like, “Between fists of fury and feats of strength / I will not fight dirty,” while a steady oscillation of electronic keyboard scales sounds off in the background. With an auditory world like this, one might not be able to avoid imagining picturesque CGI landscapes where characters run around swinging glowing swords to fight masked cyborg villains. However, the repetition of scales combined with the huskiness of Mangan’s voice makes the track sound nearly folksy, challenging the videogame comparison. After all, Mangan is playing with paradigms, allowing the listener to slip into nostalgia for the world of vintage arcade games, while remaining grounded in the present by a timeless voice. The rest of the album continues in this vein.
“Vessel” makes use of digital layering, as monophonic sounds are stacked together like Jenga pieces. The whole piece blends fun and playful instrumentation, with a trumpet coming in for the last fifteen seconds of the track. Yet the gamelike quality, found on “Offred” and continued through “Vessel,” becomes an accent piece to the more driving quality of Mangan’s singing. It is with this track that the band establishes that there is more to this album than the initial strains of easily danceable beats might suggest.
A choral-like background of vocals surrounds Mangan’s voice in “Mouthpiece,” while a lonely guitar forms the key instrumentation. There is nothing empty in the breaks between lyrics in the songs on “Club Meds.” Every space is filled to the brim with sounds and added noise — minimalist, the album is not. However, the songs never feel overburdened, and while busy, they are well-orchestrated. With the playful nature of an album name like “Club Meds,” Mangan is inviting listeners — no, daring them — not to take him seriously. Mangan urges his audience to get lost and then prevents them from falling completely into an escapist fantasy by bringing in haunting vocals just often enough to remind the listener that he is there. “Club Meds” is clever and unassuming at first, initially feeling as crowded as a club dance floor, and then cultivating a lonelier sound. If Mangan pulls listeners into a video game world, he abandons them for some time to find their way back to earth, with sparse sonic breadcrumbs as their only path home.
It is during this quickly shifting path into a variety of musical realms that Mangan loses the listener, in a well-meaning but meandering journey that goes a bit too far for its own reach.
“XVI” is raw and emotional. It is an abrupt shift, featuring the gentle harmony of a violin and only the steady pacing of a snare as background. “XVI” is a new sound for the album. In fact, listening to only “XVI” would likely leave a listener doubting that synth could exist on the same album.
Then there is “War Spoils,” which features a muffled Mangan’s voice talk-singing in a melancholic drone. Vocals are heard through a fog, and a lonely guitar picks its way through a barren and empty space. The piece is beautiful, but feels a bit too out-of-left-field to really mesh appropriately with the initial pieces at the beginning of the album.
The album finds itself again with “Forgetery,” as a snare drum with stronger and more aggressive pacing is balanced by the reverb of an electric guitar in the background. The track is new-but-not-too-new, and Mangan’s vocals are audible and reflective. “Forgetery” ironically seems to remember everything that the album sets out to do at its beginnings, and begins to pick up the breadcrumbs to find its way back to sure footing.
A meditation on the hyperactive and unfocused cyber world, Dan Mangan + Blacksmith tease listeners and then urge them to step forward and take the reins. As the album seems to warn, a world with simple and easily digestible synth sounds — a space that exists only on the club dance floor, with meds to guide you through it, is easy and dangerous.