Second Woman, "S/W"

cover imageThis innovative collaboration between Telefon Tel Aviv's Joshua Eustis and Belong's Turk Dietrich picks up right where the eponymous 2016 release left off, as the duo continue to gleefully pick apart and stretch minimal dub-techno into splintered unrecognizability.  As such, it would be quite a leap to describe S/W as dance music: all of the expected elements are present, but Second Woman reduce beats to skittering, stuttering abstraction.  The overall effect is quite a dynamically compelling one, ambitiously marrying an erratically sputtering and chopped-up synth haze with understated beats that seem equally inspired by skipping CDs, jackhammers, and ping-pong.  While some more hooks would certainly have been welcome, it is hard to grumble much about an album that sounds like it was sent from the future to show us what pop music for robots will be like.

Spectrum Spools

The opening "/" is probably the clearest possible statement of intent that Second Woman could have possibly made, as it begins with an unadorned kick drum thump that gradually increases in speed until it is almost a blur, then reverses course and slows back down to its original pace.  In essence, that repeating pattern is the entire song, though it is subtly fleshed-out by a bit of subdued synth shimmer.  While it is not an aberration by any means, it is probably the most extreme example of Second Woman's hyper-minimalist bent on the album, throwing down the gauntlet immediately to make it clear that S/W is first and foremost a playground for unusual percussion experiments.  That aggressively purist aesthetic admittedly softens a bit for the following "//," as Dietrich and Eustis enhance their scuttling and alternately expanding and contracting kick drum motif with a repeating reverberant chord, but it is still clear that the music is secondary and the erratic wanderings of the bass drum thump are the true focus.  While a lot of what follows can essentially be viewed as just a series of jackhammering bass drum variations, Second Woman tweak that simple formula more and more dramatically with each successive piece, giving the first half of the album an arc of nervous, snowballing intensity.  For example, "///" is the first piece to actually include chord changes, as well as the first to transform the ping-ponging thump into something resembling a fully formed groove with an off-kilter clapping rhythm.  The following "////" goes further still, bringing a stuttering, broken sounding chord progression to the foreground along with a ghostly and indistinct vocal sample.

Regardless of the shape the music takes, the overall effect is like watching two magicians obsessively repeating the same trick over and over again.  Admittedly, their feat is quite a good one, as these pieces simultaneously achieve a relentless industrial precision and a tense sense of being precarious and a little bit out of control: the erratic and conclusively undanceable tempo of the bass drum makes it feel like the entire pristine edifice is built upon shifting sands.  Despite my appreciation for that unconventional aesthetic, however, the sheer monomania of S/W can be a bit wearying.  Consequently, I was relieved when the second half of the album took an unexpected turn and alternately dismantled further or rebuilt Second Woman's deconstructed vision, a transformation mirrored by the odd symmetry of the cryptic track numbering system.  "////\" is the first piece to explore this slightly different side, dispensing entirely with percussion in favor of an oscillating and shuddering series of warm synth chords.  It is certainly no less obsessive-sounding than its predecessors, but it has quite a different feel.  Then the following "////\\" does the most unimaginable thing possible, locking into an actual groove with a bass line and consistent beat, though it still feels more like a simple vamp than an actual song.  Unsurprisingly, the ping-ponging drums return for the manic "////\\\," but the piece unexpectedly gives way to a series of weirdly melancholy and throbbing drones at the end, which is probably the first glimpse of human emotion on the entire album.

Second Woman save their best for (almost) last, however, as the penultimate "////\\\\" is a gorgeous eruption of all the S/W's pent-up and simmering potential, basically lighting up the album like a goddamn fireworks display.  All the expected components are still in place, but the wildly careening percussion locks into a groove with actual forward momentum, adding and subtracting elements in a way that feels genuinely songlike.  Or at least close to it: it feels more like a wild drum solo unleashed by a computer with an intuitive dynamic knack for build-ups and breakdowns, but it does culminate in a crescendo where the ricocheting percussion is viscerally strafed by gnarled streaks of textured synths.  Curiously, the final piece ("////\\\\/") takes an extremely anticlimactic turn after that firestorm, blearily drifting along for almost five minutes in a haze of plinking, disjointed percussion; seasick synth tones; and jarring alarm-bell disruptions.  That makes for a very odd and perplexing final impression, but S/W is a very odd and perplexing album, so I suppose that makes perverse sense.  Aside from "////\\\\," which is a legitimate tour de force, this album is far too one-dimensional and willfully bloodless to love.  That said, it is an album that I very much respect, as Second Woman unwaveringly display clear vision, rigorous focus, and crystalline clarity.  It would have been easy to make a more listenable album by adding a bit more in the way of warmth, depth, melody, or harmony, but Dietrich and Eustis took the harder route and achieved some rarefied and hard-won moments of singular and alien machine-music beauty instead.