by Chris Hatch
New Wave revivalists, Deeper, hail from Chicago, but from the sound of their second album they could quite easily have skulked forth from the cold, wet, post-Victorian streets of 1980s Manchester. Auto-Pain is chocked full of those dry, clipped basslines, snare-heavy drums, and bright, percussive guitar parts that seemed to endear so many bands to Factory Records boss, Tony Wilson. But while Auto-Pain has the blood of its post-punk ancestors running through its veins, there’s a vital, modern heart thumping away its centre.
The record’s opening flurry of songs pound along briskly and urgently. Shiraz Bhatti’s drumming appears to be lacking in both toms and cymbals – instead, his style is resolute and purposeful, creating the iron-grey frame for chrome-sheened guitar work to hang from. It’s that mix of stoicism and vulnerability that’s echoed in Nic Gohl’s vocal delivery too – he sounds mildly detached, almost as though he’s inhabiting some other personality, yet in between the cracks some emotion seeps through. As the album’s hypnotic, motorik tracks subtly grow in tension, so too does the intensity and openness in Gohl’s voice, marrying some of the jerking, vocal quirks of David Byrne with the thousand-yard stare of Interpol’s Paul Banks.
To say Deeper could have written this album under the oppressive skies of Northern Britain isn’t as much of a stretch as it initially seems. There are parallels between Chicago’s sunless, midwinter and the permanent greys of Britain that ring through in Gohl’s lyrics. It was the draining of colour from his hometown that informed some of the songs on Auto-Pain. Short days, long nights, monochrome twilights, a lack of sun – they all contribute to the very real Seasonal Affective Disorder (cruelly and unironically abbreviated to SAD). On lead single, This Heat, Deeper explore the glimpses of light and warmth that we cling to during those endless, bleak days; a driving rhythm section, and joyfully feverish guitar line providing a slab of Technicolor that elevates the track from gloomy insularity to defiant positivity.
By the album’s second third, Deeper have softened at the edges and mellowed slightly. Willing is given time and space to breathe and grow, its undeviating bassline creates the main artery for spiky, bubbling guitar lines to branch off from. Waves of reverb, synth, and flangey guitars gently ebb in and out here and there as abstract imagery grows in intensity, Gohl becoming more rabid and fervent with each repetition.
Album highlight, Lake Song, follows suit – but this time Deeper afford the track even more space. Its slowly creeping dread is partnered by chiming guitars and a softly buzzing synth line. Gohl’s voice is softer and more considered, ‘I just want you to feel sick,’ he sings, as the slow, bass-clap of a drum machine offers the merest temptation for feet to shuffle and toes to tap – and for the first time the crux of Auto-Pain seems to become apparent as Gohl wrestles with the duality of his mental health struggles, attempting to make sense of feelings of both positivity and guilt, happiness and sadness, light and dark.
There’s a sad footnote to be added to Auto-Pain that floods it in even harsher light. Guitarist and original member, Mike Clawson, left the band in the midst of the album’s creation to focus on his own personal struggles. With the album completed, the band embarked on a European tour, and it was on one day late last year that they received the news that Clawson had taken his own life. While Auto-Pain isn’t directly about Clawson’s passing, in retrospect it can’t help but feel coloured by it. His death re-frames and amplifies the sentiment that Auto-Pain contains.
That battle between light and dark is the undercurrent that fizzes away beneath Auto-Pain’s mix of angular post-punk, and shimmering, slow-building New Wave. Gohl is just as arresting and emotionally charged on the breathlessly rapid 4U as he is on the spacious Lake Song, his vocal delivery a facet of the album that is an endearingly important driving force. Auto-Pain has shades of Devo, of Joy Division, and even warming, optimistic hints of New Order – it’s full of songs that wrap starkly honest lyrics with sweet, bright guitar lines, and tempers a dark, nostalgic sound with a voice that speaks to the pockets of society who increasingly struggle to keep a healthy mind. While Deeper don’t entirely shatter the mould, their polarity in tone gives Auto-Pain an emotionally-charged kinesis.
Secret Meeting score: 77
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