With the electronic dance genres so horribly overcrowded, it’s tough singling out a dark gem among all the buzzing, thumping wannabes out there – and that includes most of the major-label acts. Everybody’s cranking out manic four-on-the-floor beats with little or no attention to the artistic potential lying within all those tangled circuits and stacked samples. Anyone with a computer can cut a workable dance track nowadays, but it’s a real artist who can infuse those same rhythms with mood and character. When I find someone who can pull this off, it can make my whole week… and thanks to Frightdoll, this week I’m feeling pretty damn good.
Already well known in Florida’s Goth-industrial scene and becoming increasingly popular in Europe, electro triple-threat Frightdoll writes, produces and performs all her own material – but don’t expect a rinky-dink laptop project here. Her second album Assimilation Illusion has solid production value and an epic sound, plus some unique personal touches that put this record in the top class of synth-based composition, and a strong evolutionary step forward from the raw but distinct potential she revealed in her self-released 2007 debut Reference Version. It also fully capitalizes on the impact of her last significant project, the single “Unpreventable” (co-produced with dark industrial act Empusae) which appeared on the electro compilation CD Machines Against Hunger – the proceeds of which went to the international health advocacy group Action Against Hunger.Where Version was distinguished by its minimalist synth-pop approach, the densely layered textures of Illusion expand the project into more ambient, expressionist territory, with a darker edge, warmer tone and some distinctly classical influences threaded throughout. The resulting tapestry forms the background for Frightdoll’s vocals to create a seductive but dangerous landscape.The simple and delicate piano intro “Lost” belies the threat ahead by opening on a melancholy tone, with a tiny, slightly distorted vocal slipping in and out of deep bass swells, together creating the impression of a tiny Alice entering a mechanized Wonderland. In the Gothy track “Alone in This,” those vocals take on a robotic monotone, with heavier filtering, and become increasingly overdriven in subsequent tracks “Caused” and “Evolution,” but the instrumental menace beneath them is still fairly restrained. The darker layers finally rise to the surface and take on an old-school horror soundtrack feel in the chilling “Controverse,” which sprinkles dissonant bell-tones over huge waves of warm bass with the harsh vocal ripping through the mix in a mechanized screech (reminiscent of Psyclon Nine’s Nero Bellum), and “Generate” with its eerie plinking patterns and monotonic buzzes underscoring the sung-spoken lyrics.“Distant” marks a more subdued return, with a warm piano line carrying the plaintive vocal, and “Leaving You” continues in that low-key vein, with the driving arpeggios staying down in the low range and airy, delay-heavy vocals alternating with glassy synth clouds. The album’s best piano and vocal work drives “Endings,” aided by a stuttering, chopped industrial beat (which occasionally threatens to overwhelm the mood), and the ghost-girl vocal persona of “Lost” returns in the chilling coda “Sweet Serenity,” again accompanied by a bittersweet piano melody, but this time wrapped in dark ambient textures that lurch, moan and surge in and out of range. It’s a great atmospheric closer, and Gothic in the purest sense of the word.Throughout the album there’s a refreshing purity to the low-key analog beats, which maintain a steady heartbeat without overpowering the mix, and solid, no-nonsense programming which avoids the digital chilliness and ear-fatigue of so many electro-industrial records. The overall feeling created by the instrumentation here is warm and inviting, despite the dark melancholy themes. The vocals, though heartfelt, tend to be a bit colder, staying in the higher frequencies, which can make them sound a bit thin, but this may be intentional, creating a “little girl lost” feeling within the massive pulsing machinery.Overall, Assimilation Illusion is a significant step forward for a talented do-it-yourself artist, and I look forward to the next Frightdoll project – especially if she continues to build on the ominous themes that creep in around the edges of these tracks, which are equally at home on the dance floor or on the sofa with the lights out.