Last year, Gainesville, FL’s Ars Phoenix put out one of the best darkwave albums I’ve heard in quite some time in the form of Violent Rain, a release that combined robotic synths with an icy, sinister vibe to create a delightfully dark yet catchy and at times even danceable take on the genre. I revisit the album often, so I was quite excited when the band e-mailed to inform me that they had some new material out in the form of a split with fellow Floridians Burnt Hair titled Shinju (“double suicide” in Japanese).
Jacksonville’s Burnt Hair kicks off the release in fine fashion with a quartet of tracks that while certainly rooted in the same gothic/darkwave sound as Ars Phoenix are quite different in approach. The band specializes in haunting, synth-fueled dirges that creep their way into your ears, far too slow-moving to dance to but still eerily memorable. This is some of the most despondent-sounding music I’ve had the pleasure of wrapping my ears around in quite some time; tracks such as “Filament” and “Stems” make you feel as if they’re going to come out of the speakers and drain all the color out your world, covering what remains in the same dreary blacks and grays that adorn the cassette’s cover. Being the more experimental of the two bands, Burnt Hair flirts with dark ambient sounds throughout their side of the tape, and even brings elements of straight-up noise into mix on the side-closing “Left to Chance.”
Ars Phoenix’s side of the cassette sees them continuing to explore the sound they’d already damn near perfected with Violent Rain and yet they still find ways to up the ante; the pop sensibilities are sharper, the choruses are catchier, but these songs are also more ominous-sounding than anything found on the full length. Indeed, that aforementioned sinister vibe that ran just under the surface of Violent Rain is in full effect on Shinju, with songs like “Desiccation” and “Howling Man” sporting an alluring mix of dread and sensuality; this new material isn’t just darker and even more memorable, it’s downright seductive. Ars Phoenix’s songwriting approach is far more dynamic than that of Burnt Hair; while the beats remain slow to mid-paced, they’re still a refreshing change of pace after BH’s uniformly glacial approach to tempo and are more than sufficient to get bodies moving. One can easily imagine these tracks blaring in a club lit only by strobe lights and cigarettes.
Overall, Shinju is a gorgeously gloomy listening experience; Ars Phoenix continues to impress mightily, while Burnt Hair prove themselves more than worthy of further investigation. If you’re even remotely into darkwave, this is a mandatory purchase; the cassette is out now via Dead Tank Records or as a pay-what-you-want download via the label’s Bandcamp page for all you tape-haters out there.