The Presets - Pacifica

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Four years is a long time in the music industry to spend holed away, outside the limelight. After stealing away with a swag of ARIA awards following the release of 2008’s seminal electro LP Apocalypso, The Presets, made up of Sydneysiders Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes, made no secret of the fact that they were far more comfortable working outside the critical gaze of mainstream media. In the passing years, it seems that The Presets have faced head-on the questions of their long-term viability on the Australian music scene and remoulded themselves into something more adult, more thoughtful and considered – as the recent release of third studio album Pacifica reveals.

Sounding almost like Booka Shade with a throbbing, minimalistic bassline on opening track Youth in Trouble, it is clear from the get-go that the Presets are choosing to dispense with the youthful exuberance of previous LP Apocalypso – instead, making a concerted effort to push themselves into undiscovered territory, both musically and thematically speaking. Deep and driving minimal techno married to all of the traditions of exuberant, hands-in-the-air electro, Youth in Trouble is irony-laden dancefloor fodder, with its lyrics an astute reflection of mainstream media’s equal parts fascination and revulsion with youth culture and the moral panics it ignites. This is one of Pacifica’s successes, sharing similarities with tracks like the undeniably anthemic My People of 2008 – with its shrewd sense of insight into the modern condition in the context of asylum seekers, wrapped up in a storming, stadium-sized chorus that render them equally digestible by hordes of screaming young teenagers as the grown-up, twenty-something clubber looking for a brief interlude of escapism.

It is in these moments of reflection, moderated by a keen instinct for the vividly compelling dancefloor-oriented hits, that Pacifica shines. The stunningly elegant second single to emerge from Pacifica, Ghosts, exemplifies this – sounding equal measures reflective and resigned, a keen sense of self-awareness permeates the single’s spacious washes of synthesiser and chanted choruses, with singer Julian Hamilton sounding vaguely regretful as he sings about being haunted by memories of “cocaine, song, women and wine”. Comparisons to Karl Hyde of Underworld, as I’ve seen a few other reviewers do, seems strangely fitting – while Hyde’s half-mad poetics verge on the indecipherable at times, the compelling vocal presence and internal struggles of both make for interesting parallels. Growing up, both in a musical and personal context, is an essential stage to life – and the Presets, evidently, are doing so with consummate wisdom and acumen.

Moments of clarity in direction and sharp insight, however, are somewhat allayed by a lack of direction in some of the album’s content – there are tracks in which a reliance on musical tropes of the past mire the album in unremarkability. Take Surrender, for example – a track that recalls a string of techno’s more staid clichés (siren samples and a bleeping melody that sounds as if it could be pulled from a Deadmau5 album of years past), an uncomfortable and forgettable attempt to recall the successes of Apocalyso that falls somewhat flat. Which is a shame, because when the Presets set their mind to are comfortable enough to experiment with dance music’s infinite possibilities, the results make for compelling listening.

Reticent in the past to explore dance music’s more downtempo spaces, the refreshingly original It’s Cool, floating along on a simple piano melody, glimmering pads and pared-back, acoustic-sounding drums makes for contemplative nighttime listening. To whom it’s addressed is unclear, but the sense of acceptance in the face of the future’s infinite uncertainties is moving. And when Hamilton’s lyricism turns more critical, incisive, his aim is perfectly on point. The menacing, pitched-down rumblings of Adults Only is another highlight – Hamilton channels a twisted sense of nationalism (a theme that seems oddly appropriate in this current political climate) and amplifies it to great effect, categorizing the shadowier history of Sydney in devastating manner. Bushfire seasons, the Rum Rebellion, the shooting of a schizophrenic tourist by police, in a modern society where “little old ladies die afraid and alone, now surrounded by yuppies, small bars and coke”. Hamilton’s increasingly urgent, manic delivery, soundtracked by neon-bright screeches of synths and a breakdown in coherence is symbolic of all that the Presets have come to represent – a compelling juxtaposition between cutting-edge futurism and the perspective and wisdom of age.

Age treats musicians in the industry intent on a long stay in the strangest of ways. Some remain steadfastly devoted to the things which found them success in the beginning, ultimately dooming themselves to irrelevance in the face of a changing landscape. Others – the Presets, for instance – demonstrate an enviable ability to age gracefully, adapting to their environments with ease and style.