There’s an instinctive symbiosis that comes with a rare few synth-based duos… something vaguely detectable in the quality that’s difficult to put in words… like a digital genetic compatibility… whatever it is, Chris & Cosey, Yazoo, November Növelet, Absolute Body Control all had it and Xeno and Oaklander seem to finally be mainlined into it. This is the point at which this Brooklyn based duo has really blossomed. It seems that they’ve dragged their synths into every club on the planet since the release of SENTINELLE a couple of years ago and while that album ( great as it was ) had something dreary lingering around it, the collection of tracks that make up SET AND LIGHTS are upbeat, punchy, crammed with juicy analogue and no doubt extremely impressive live ( so far there’s been no sign of a Dublin show on this tour ). The vocal interplay between Sean McBride and Miss Liz Wendelbo is very much the identity of Xeno And Oaklander and it seems that Sean McBride’s deadpan vocals have been given more prominence here ( certainly more lead vocals ) which is definitely an enhancement of the more driving tracks.
The opener, SET AND LIGHTS pulses into life in a somber throbbing tone, with icy drifts of vocals, a light fluttering staccato melody and dusky lyrical references to theatrical road burn. Sonically, It’s immediately apparent as a new level for Xeno and Oaklander. They seem to have captured a perfect balance between minimalism and resonance that this sort of music needs to succeed. UNTITLED is a brief leftfield excursion, some devious suggestions of rhythm that never quite kick in and a reassurance that there’s no designs here to slip into an illusion of saccharine synthpop. YEARS BEFORE illustrates the sharper edge on this album to best effect. It’s ordered rhythmic tangle of synths are something I haven’t heard done this well since Absolute Body Control’s FIGURES cassette from 1983. CORRUPT, another definite highlight, is fast paced and has all the crafting of OMD at their best. Interestingly, there’s something in Sean Mc Bride’s vocals here reminiscent of Andy McCluskey’s nasal tones. The rhythmic bass intro of BLUE gives way to Miss Liz Wendelbo’s drifting vaporous vocals, which, in parts linger on themselves to a point where the word content is somewhat secondary and could be any language. ITALY, an instrumental, has a gene of early Depeche Mode in it and AUTUMN’S EDGE contains exactly the sort of stoic auricular romanticism that the cover art suggests. THE STAIRCASE leads in with a riff that’s positively Yazoo in its delivery, although further layers and spooky punctuations take it off into cold wave zone. DESERT ROSE is one of those déjà vu tracks that capture affections of something I know ( or am pretty sure? ) I didn’t hear 30 years ago. Far from a negative comment, it’s simply that Xeno and Oaklander flaunt that caustic impassiveness so well. OPEN WALLS ( probably my favourite track here ) closes the album with that classic straight-faced tone of humourless pretension, the sort that it takes a thick skin to pull off. Contrary to what should be the case, it just makes the music more and more charismatic!
Because of the roots and associations of this music it’s difficult to avoid drawing some historical comparisons. Aesthetics from a period in modern music are very much part of Xeno and Oaklander’s trajectory, although this is far from an act of nostalgia. It’s icy confidence is enough for it to make sense now, and not as some throwback… And the fact that there are probably more synth based musical entities than ever on the planet, yet very little this striking, is a disappointment. So much is hyped beyond it’s threshold of rationality by reprehensible hipsters, or veers towards dreadful blue dreaded sonic styrofoam goth-rave, that it makes the presence of Xeno And Oaklander all the more refreshing. – BOZ