The electro-pop milieu of Europe and the US saw a great migration last year towards duos, with an abundance of mixed doubles cropping up like unrestrained whac-a-moles: AlunaGeorge, MS MR, The Knife... it's surely been a profitable year for Korg, Moog and Roland. With a bounty of synth-focused acts ready to launch campaigns this year, there seems to be no end in sight - which isn't really a bad thing, as many offerings have been rather wonderful. Apparently not keen to be left out, Swedish popsmiths I Break Horses have gone and done an S Club, reaching for the stars (and further) on the follow-up to 2011's Hearts.
Entitled Chiaroscuro - an Italian term meaning 'the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting', according to Google - the record absconds from reality, leering into planes of blistering white hope and soul-sucking bitter wormholes. They treat the album as a singular flow, morphing and evolving but never really halting at any moment; there's an organic feel to this approach, despite the reliance on electricity, and it's one that apparently Scandinavian musicians have perfected. Chiaroscuro is recklessly ambitious in it's scope, in contrast to their debut which preferred to bubble just under the surface. 'Chiaroscuro' is a word which here refers to not only the current record, but also the comparisons of both their records. It's multi-layered. Like an onion.
Building from an icy, placid overture to an M83-flavoured fug, opener 'You Burn' hooks you in without so much as a blink. Emotive piano, doused in reverb, punctuates the swarming synth riptides, trying in vain to ensure the track doesn't slip into gothic trance. In the dwindling moments however, it succumbs - just in time to welcome 'Faith', an altogether more unhinged behemoth. HEALTH and modern Crystal Castles may have been inspirations here: it's grazed-knee raw, pockmarked with rhythmic seizures and about as abrasive as music can be whilst still being 'pop'. It's built for hedonistic, lascivious jiggery-pokery, not pensive meditation. There's a confident danger looming.
That feeling crops up every now and again, interspersed with crystalline bouts of dreampop - that'll be the 'chiaroscuro' in action, albeit not particularly subtly. You have 'Ascension' and 'Denial' swimming in wide-eyed optimism before the sour taste of 'Berceuse' cuts in. It's more streamlined than much of the record, which favours a boxer's wallop over cloaks'n'daggers, 'Berceuse''s charm lies in the percussion and it's manipulation of the rest of the elements, which follow the beat, no matter how chaotic. 'Medicine Man' follows the pattern of darkness, and then - as if like clockwork - 'Disclosure' acts as a guiding beacon through the storm.
The only black sheep of the album comes in the form of 'Weigh True Words', which a gushing geyser of power ballad oomph, heart-sore feelings and more earworms than'll fit in your bonce. It soars proudly above the choking, swirling pools of noise - it's almost as if the record has been building to it the entire time. It's potentially the LP's highlight, but not in isolation; the power comes from the extended journey leading up to it. It's more a payoff than anything - the few seconds of explosive action when launching a bottlerocket after what seems like hours of finicky prep.
This is an interlocking, complimentary album-in-the-traditional-sense, where each song on display acts as a contrast or as a buffer or as a prelude or comedown to another. Everything's connected on Chiaroscuro, providing an extra jolt of energy and plentiful scope for hidden nuggets upon repeated listens than if it was just chopped up singles. This spiderweb format isn't without its possible pitfalls, though: for the whole impact, it requires dedication reserved for concept albums (which this essentially is), and without the temporal input, it may just appear muddled, overwrought or lacklustre. But it's really, really not.