When electro dance-pop duo Soft Metals brings its meticulous textures and danceable rhythms to Snug Harbor on Sept. 5, audiences may feel seduced and rebuffed. By turns sexy, oblique and chilly, Soft Metals seems to be harboring a startling secret it cannot reveal — something about relationships, or the mutability of existence. Even its contradictory moniker stirs up dissonance. Who ever heard of a soft metal?
"Ian came up with the name," singer Patricia Hall says, referring to her partner, keyboard wizard Ian Hicks. "To me, [Soft Metals] means taking something raw and hard and bending it to your will, into something useful, interesting, important."
The urge to forge something new from vaguely familiar sounds is what brought the duo together. United in their love of '70s and '80s synthesizer music, Hicks and Hall began writing and recording songs in 2009. "We both compose," says Hicks. "We start with music and then Patricia will come up with the lyrics."
Those lyrics are key to Soft Metals' gauzy, sophisticated allure. In a reverbed, disconnected croon that recalls the half-remembered-romance-in-the-middle-of-a-moonwalk vibe of David Lynch protégé Julee Cruise, Hall sings of detachment, helpless surrender and death. "And I die. And he dies. We all die," goes the hauntingly sensuous refrain of "When I Look Into Your Eyes."
"My lyrics come from life experiences," Hall confesses. "I've always been a little preoccupied with death. My father died when I was very young."
Any concerns that such dark musings bode ill for the continued well-being of Soft Metals are laid to rest by Hicks, who notes he and Hall are romantic partners as well as musical collaborators, and that their partnership is robustly healthy. "Our personal relationship doesn't affect our work," says Hicks. "We're pretty good at compartmentalizing a creative difference rather than turning it into personal attacks."
With the shimmering surrealism of Hall's vocals and surging hypnotic grooves, Soft Metals oscillates between Chromatics' pulsing Giorgio Moroder-scapes and The Knife's icy blood-and-sex burlesque show. Yet, Soft Metals delivers its deliciously bleak vision without the clear, diamond-hard synths of its contemporaries, preferring warm and hazy analog tones. A yearning nostalgia for a future that never was, basking in Kraftwerk's burnished glow, leavens the swirling darkness at the duo's core.
Hicks cites classic Krautrock pioneers Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream among his influences. Hall gives a shout-out to the exhilarating retro sleaze of Black Devil Disco Club. And both acknowledge their debt to dark proto-industrial powerhouse Throbbing Gristle. Soft Metals paid homage to those experimental post-punk titans when the duo covered Throbbing Gristle's "Hot on the Heels of Love."
"At the time we covered 'Hot on the Heels,' we were trying to add some more dancey, high-energy songs into our set," Hicks explains. "TG's classic track fit the bill perfectly."
Hicks says the duo made a conscious decision to include more dance rhythms in the current LP, Lenses, and Hall adds, "We wanted [Lenses] to sound more contemporary, yet relate to our existing work."
After four years and two LPs, it's still tricky to characterize Soft Metals' body of work. Is it the dance floor-friendly intersection of symbiotic love and sociopathic shut-down? The contrast between glowing nostalgia and a bleak future? Compassion colliding with nihilism?
"It's hard to know," says Hall. "It's just what happens when you put Ian and I in a room together with a bunch of vintage synthesizers."
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