Like that elusive ‘Chinese Democracy’ album Guns N Roses always promised but never delivered (I’m sure Black Strobe wouldn’t mind the analogy), Ivan Smagghe and Arnaud Rebotini’s first studio album, in the making since 2001’s ‘Innerstring’ single if you think about it, will apparently still have to wait a bit. In the meantime, fans are invited to chew on this: a compilation of the Parisian duo’s best (?) remixes. Titled ‘A Remix Selection’, it is a fitting introduction to one of the most idiosyncratic production teams in dance music right now, and a more than satisfying listen in its own right.
If Black Strobe’s recent ventures into …*gulp*… minimalism are any indication (‘Last Dub on Earth’, ‘Nazi Trance Fuck Off’, Rebotini’s solo productions, Smagghe’s DJ sets over the last eighteen months), then the duo’s new material might be slightly different than what they’ve got us used to with their remixes over the past few years. But then again, recording their album in London with Paul ‘Phones’ Epworth, of White Rose Movement and Bloc Party fame, is proof the band is interested in expanding its sound palette. Exhibit A: Phones’ own ‘Industrial Version’ of the band’s ‘Shining Bright Star’, the only new Black Strobe material on this compilation. It won’t rally anyone new to their cause, really, considering it’s closeness in spirit and execution to ‘Chemical Sweet Girl’, and it probably doesn’t sound like what you think Smagghe should be doing right now (aren’t Stephan Bodzin and Marc Romboy already covering that territory anyway?), but it is satisfying to hear the band still being able to tighten it a bit and impose their own terms on a track, which is what their remixing work is all about in the end, right? Some will be scared by the Goth-lite undertones of the production and the somewhat ludicrous romanticism of Rebotini’s vocals and lyrics, but ‘Shining Bright Star’ is a nice reminder that, sometimes, funky people wear black too.
The nine Black Strobe remixes coming next will be known to anyone remotely familiar with post-electroclash trends on the current underground house and techno scenes, mostly because their formula is – let’s face it – pretty much always the same. They superimpose their martial and (not-always-subtle) EBM-enhanced beats on top of the original work (the way they abuse Sweet Light’s own delicate ‘Abusator’ is the closest you’ll ever get to the aural equivalent of anal rape) while keeping the pop elements of the vocals and adding a few oscillating bleeps here and there. Smagghe and Rebotini are at their best when they allow the influence of early Warp stuff (think Sweet Exorcist, Forgemasters, even Tricky Disco) to shine through their two-tone melodies and industrial atmospheres: The Rapture’s pulsating ‘Sister Savior’ and David Carretta, The Hacker & Millimetric’s ‘Moscow Reisen’ detonation (French electro’s own self-absorbed ‘We Are the World’) are the most perfectly realized – and efficient – examples of the Black Strobe work ethos. More Mark Bell, less Twiggy Ramirez, then.
That said, it unfortunately doesn’t always work out well, and ‘A Remix Collection’ is tarnished by the inclusion of one real sonic disaster. Black Strobe’s first remix of Depeche Mode’s ‘Something to Do’ from 2004 – the most BS-friendly track of DM’s entire back catalogue, really, so it should have been a marriage made in heaven – kept just the ‘Is there something to do’ and ‘I’d put your pretty dress on’ lyrics, thus enhancing the titillating connotations of the original. The ‘alternative’ remix they decided to put on here, however, with the entire Dave Gahan vocal sitting very uncomfortably on top of what is otherwise an impressive reconstruction, is a totally difficult and frustrating listen, and neither BS nor DM end up being flattered by it. It is the sole moment of awkwardness on the compilation – and in Black Strobe’s entire career so far – and it’s a very misguided and disappointing piece of work. Fans are invited to hunt down the previously released version on some Mute promos and stick to it, or to skip to the remix of Bloc Party’s ‘Like Eating Glass’ (included here) to see Black Strobe’s usual talent at tweaking vocals and turning them into frozen anthems of lust and desire in factory-ridden metropolises.
And just when you thought Black Strobe were really starting to take their self-imposed discipline too seriously, they remind you, with their remixes of Martini Bros’ ‘The Biggest Fan’ and Dominatrix’s ‘Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight’, that they can be playful and, dare I say, fun. Yes, they love anorexic coked-up models with tits hanging out and puke in their hair just as much as you do, but they also dig dominating chicks and effeminate Berliners who can also bust a move, you know.
Black Strobe’s inclusions on ‘A Remix Collection’ say a lot about the band’s self-perception, but their exclusions do, too: by omitting their versions of Alter Ego’s over-played ‘Rocker’, David Guetta’s pumping ‘The World is Mine’, or their frankly odd, unreleased remix of Eminem’s ‘Without Me’, Black Strobe are cryptically stating that they prefer to stay away from the limelight (duh!). It also seems that their ‘Summer Camp’ take on W.I.T.’s ‘Hold Me, Touch Me’ – which is all about soothing acoustic guitars (!) and unresolved issues over unsatisfied tales of summer love and unfinished businesses – will have to remain forever hidden. It’s their most intricate and luminous work to date, an amazing remix doomed to only be available to some few lucky fans I like to think I am part of.
Regardless of one faulty inclusion and one regrettable exclusion, this compilation nevertheless confirms Black Strobe’s unique and instantly recognizable voice and unparalleled sound, not only on the post-‘Homework’ French electronic scene of the 2000s, but in the entire contemporary dance music world. It might hurt a little sometimes, as any real pleasure does, but in the end, Arnaud and Ivan sure know how to dance, even if they don’t smile a lot. Seems they were right all along: funk is not always where you think indeed.
Buy Black Strobe - A Remix Selection at
Other PlayLouderecordings reviews