If the pragmatic approaches to the work of art have taught us anything at all, at least in the French literary criticism world, it is that art doesn’t really come at you as much as you come to it. Thus, its signification has much more to do with the receiver’s own apprehensions, expectations, and overall ideas over what a specific work of art should or could say or mean than anything else. In that regard, to say ‘Burn Your Own Church’, Black Strobe’s first official array in the long player format (an album in the making since 1997 that has had some electronic music fans salivating for what seems like ages now), is a shocking disappointment is – let’s face it – an understatement… but that very disappointment probably has more to do with the disabling feeling of finding out your long-time fuckbuddy is sleeping with someone else, even though you guys were never in a committed relationship (in other words, it’s your shit, not his). And now that Ivan Smagghe has quietly left the (sinking according to some) ship (even though I do no think it had been confirmed by him yet, Smagghe leaving doesn’t really come as a surprise, right?), letting Arnaud Rebotini (and fellow Parisian Siskid) fulfill his I-have-a-Norwegian-black-metal-fixation full-on live rock band fantasy, it seems this album, even though recorded with producer extraordinaire Paul ‘Phones’ Epworth, belongs to another era, another genre and to another fan base altogether. I mean, if it wasn’t being released by this band called Black Strobe, RA wouldn’t even be thinking of talking about it.
At the same time, if this is all coming to you as a revolting distress (this album sure seems to be stirring very strong dysphoric reactions online, to say the least), then you haven’t seriously been paying attention to Ivanaud Smagghotini recently.
When ‘A Remix Selection’ was released at the end of 2006, it marked, according to the band themselves, the end of a chapter. Might as well say it was the end of an entire book, a book whose writing started when Trevor Jackson snatched ‘Innerstrings’ from an obscure Parisian underground label (Back in Black anyone?) and re-released it on his own Output in 2000. Then the band recorded ‘Me & Madonna’ with fellow Parisian DJ and part-time power-lesbo vocalist Jennifer Cardini, and the rest is, as they say, history. Soon, Black Strobe somehow got caught up in the Electroclash legwarmer craze of 2001-2002, but they never really drifted away from the aesthetics they forged on those two early seminal singles: a vaguely postmodern take on British electronic cold wave with a hint of Warp-forged bleeps, industrial dynamics, and a heavy dose of… yes… irony. In other words, if you thought that they really thought Madonna was really in love with them, or that the over-the-top Rebotini shady vocals on ‘Innerstrings’ weren’t taking the Goth piss, then you really missed the point. Weren’t Black Strobe the ones who once said that funny people can wear black too anyway?
Truth be told, ‘Burn Your Own Church’ isn’t doing anything more than redeploying some carefully crafted codes (as witnessed on those early singles or on remixes like Martini Bros’s ‘The Biggest Fan’, Tiefschwarz’s ‘Ghosttrack’, or Rammstein’s ‘Keine Lust’) while increasing a notch their darker and noisier undertones, with more live guitars and live drums. Simple as that. Synths and bass lines are still coming at you like stabbing knifes (‘Blood Shot Eyes’, ‘Not What I Need’), drums are still heavily combative (‘Brenn Di Ega Kjerk’ – that is Norwegian for burning your own church, apparently –, ‘You Should Be’) and the overall imagery is still anchored in bleak metropolitan landscapes and black leather coats (all of it). I they toured it opening for Grinderman I don’t think anyone would even be surprised.
As far as I am concerned, though, the most confrontational aspect of the album is Rebotini’s singing: his voice is very upfront in the mix (as displayed on previous singles such as ‘Chemical Sweet Girl’ and ‘Deceive/Play’, adding, again, a certain sense of continuity), sounding more raw, more bare than what you’d usually expect (something like a younger French version of Nick Cave, if you’d like), but the sense of causticity of yore is still alive and well. I mean, it is hard not to smile at upcoming single and Bo Diddley cover ‘I’m a Man’, with its rockabilly undertones, cowboy-lite poses and self-caricatural masculinity (when Rebotini playfully sings “The way I make love to ‘em… they can’t resist”, you can actually hear Epworth cracking up in the studio and Smagghe wanting to blow his fucking brains out). Then, with lethargic ballads such as the spooky ‘Girl Next Door’, the piano-driven ‘Lady’ or anthemic album closer ‘Crave For Speed’, it is obvious Rebotini is forcing the overtly gothic note, but not that much: it is still the sound of a band designing and perfecting the same imaginary suffocating and martial world in which girls are sweet but perpetually chemically altered and in which dance floors are also abandoned battlefields. The only real concession to their previous so-called electro-house sound and to ‘Italian Fireflies’-like pads is ‘Buzz Buzz Buzz’, the sole track on ‘Burn You Own Church’ that should immediately speak to their first hour fans, but it somehow sounds vaguely out of place, like a distant cousin you know you’re related to but haven’t seen in a while.
If the album feels like such a letdown for hardcore dance music fans, though, it’s probably because it asks its listeners to change generic listening frames to truly appreciate its calculated brutality. For example, ‘Last Club on Earth’, the album pièce de résistance, reminds me, all at the same time, of The Sister of Mercy’s ‘More’, of Frontline Assembly, of early-90s shoegazers (think My Bloody Valentine, Curve, or even Chapterhouse: incidentally, it is not surprising to hear Alan Moulder was involved in the mixing of the album), and of The fucking Edge of fucking U2’s guitar mastering. You couldn’t be any further from Tiga than this. And it’s probably all the better for it: ‘Burn Your Own Church’ is an album’s album, disorienting at first yet coherently song-based and carefully constructed from start to finish, which is something that never works that well with the dance crowds anyway.
Nevertheless, the upcoming months should be interesting to watch for both Black Strobe headmasters, now that Ivan and Arnaud are going their separate ways. Will Smagghe, free at last, spend more time with Marc Colin under their Volga Select alias? Will he call Ewan Pearson and resurrect the Two Fairlight Bitches remixing team? Will he devote himself entirely to the Kill the DJ imprint? Will he eat a little? Or will he dare to start releasing his own personal takes of their self-described gay-biker house sound? As of Rebotini, it would be hard to see him going any further down with this black metal obsession, but then again, stranger things have happened.
In any case, don’t mark Black Strobe’s current recorded incarnation off yet, because on the impending Judgment Day (I am convinced Rebotini would appreciate the apocalyptic reference), in the last club on Earth, ‘Burn Your Own Church’ might as well be what will be playing inside. And that day might come sooner than you think.
Buy Black Strobe - Burn Your Own Church at
Tracklist: Black Strobe - Burn Your Own Church1. Brenn Di Ega Kjerke
2. Shining Bright Star
3. Girl Next Door
4. Blood Shot Eyes
5. Not What You Need
6. I’m A Man
7. Lady 13
8. You Should Be
9. Buzz Buzz Buzz
10. Last Club On Earth
11. Crave For Speed
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