by Nick Hanover
Lately my nonstop internal dialogue about the purpose and methods of criticism has centered on analyzing and discussing the way art makes me feel. Criticism as comparative analysis now seems stifling, the process of connecting contextual dots for myself and readers more of a chore than anything useful. I am attempting to care less about who a band sounds like than I do the feelings they provoke in me.
Obviously some works make this easier than others. There are sonic signifiers written into our cultural DNA saying “this sound means this,” the way horror has atonal stabs and the wild west has the twang of a mouth harp. We are conditioned to read these elements a certain way, to recognize how they fit into non-verbal language and prepare us for related iconography. But what is the sound of foreplay? Not the sound of the pursuit of sex or its aftermath; those are concepts ingrained in basically every pop song, lyrics and music always detailing desire and infatuation, chase and consummation and the end results. The sound of arousal and sensuality are harder to recognize, they’re a kind of denial, a tease of what’s to come and therefore more nebulous. I don’t know that it exists on a cultural level yet, but I do know that Troller’s sophomore LP Graphic is pleasurable intensity personified, provoking the feeling not of pursuit but of the start of gratification, the escalation of pleasure.
Graphic is a work that consistently communicates the feeling of foreplay– through distorted bass that swells and expands with libidinous energy, through Amber Goers’ eerie vocals bleeding out around the edges, through melodies that trace like fingers across hungry skin. The songs on the album are structured like torturous teases, denying climax and pushing listeners to give into a nonstop heightening of intensity, the gratification coming not from occasional deliveries of ecstasy but in the perpetual withholding of it, a promise that the end result will be far greater. Lush instrumental passages like “They Body” flank more substantial erotic hymns, dreamy moments like “Storm Maker” deescalate the audio arousal, the work on the whole ebbing and flowing to suit the delayed gratification.
“Not Here” functions as the best ambassador for this, the single constructed around ominous bass and a particularly haunted Goers vocal that is in turn amplified by a sweetly off-kilter lead synth line. The beat is plodding and methodical, light and buried in the mix, barely shifting when the song builds to its anti-climax, a section where Goers’ vocal and bassline become more aggressive, seemingly building to a crescendo only to disintegrate into a massive swell of longing. “Nothing” flips that, putting the catchy vocal melody at the start, Goers’ delivery taunting and androgynous, then coy and contradictory as she chants “I want to know what it’s like to feel nothing/I want to know what it’s like to feel nothing at all/I feel nothing at all.” Both tracks have insistent rhythms that barely change even as the music around them shift to give more room, opening up spaces that other groups might pack with fills or solos. But Troller wants you to constantly desire more, to get off on what remains just outside your reach.
On the album’s most traditionally sexualized moment, the synth blues number “Sundowner,” a thrusting bassline serves as the hook, while Goers’ vocal and a descending synthline function as anti-melodic elements, making for a claustrophobic experience. There is a pain-pleasure dichotomy at work in all of Troller’s music but “Sundowner” is a moment that more consciously subverts what we expect sexy music to sound like. There is a swagger to it and its arrangement mimics penetration, longer thrusts in and out giving way to staccato, rapid fire bursts, then fading back before it gets to be too much. But even here the tease is the focus, the song never providing a stable melody for listeners to cling to and repeat, to hum later or sing along to.
All throughout Graphic, Troller want you to embrace pleasure as an overall mood rather than a means to end. The songs on Graphic go on longer than punk-leaning darkwave fans might be used to, unfolding at their own laborious pace, double the pop standard of three minute stretches, rejecting verse-chorus-verse structures and following notes and tones down unexpected routes. And all along the way, Troller creates a new language of erotic longing, the push and pull of a distorted bassline signifying need, the minimalist percussion the sound of heartbeats and exhaled breaths, synths serving as moans and gasps and sighs. Graphic is the sound of a body perpetually on the precipice of release, of an open mouth silently begging for more. More art should aspire to communicate so boldly and uniquely.
Troller’s Graphic will be released on April 8th through Holodeck, but you can preorder it now.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover