Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Pittsburgh might not seem like a psychedelic stronghold, but in the recent past, the band Black Moth Super Rainbow has proven to be a reliably potent source of reality-bending indie-pop. Yet while BMSR sounds more organic, Tobacco — the alter ego of BMSR frontman Thomas Fec — revels in all things synthetic.
Over the last few years, Tobacco has left trails of mind-warping electronic music that meld a proud psychedelic tradition with the beeps, thumps and loops of synths, samples and drum machines. The result is pleasantly disorienting.
Tobacco’s fourth and latest album, Sweatbox Dynasty, doubles down on that trip. Engineering synth-pop’s DNA into something far weirder and less linear, Fec cranks up Atari-era blips and vocoder-mutated vocals in “Wipeth Out,” which may or may not be a radical reinterpretation of the legendary surf song “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris. Familiar landmarks also emerge, evaporate and drift away in “Gods In Heat,” with a funky, Prince-like, “na-na-na” refrain buried in layers of digitized distortion and seesawing sine waves.
Brief interludes like “Hong” and “The Madonna” aren’t exactly respites from Tobacco’s onslaught of strangeness. Fec uses these tracks, awash in stuttering glitches and wayward keyboard stabs, as highly concentrated bursts of abrasive experimentation. That’s not to say there aren’t hooks galore. The metallic riffs and robotic whispers of “Dimensional Hum” give way to the spacious, effervescent “Warlock Mary,” a song burbling with fuzz and euphoric swells of static. At six minutes, the album’s closer, “Let’s Get Worn Away,” is its most sprawling, but even then, Fec affects a sumptuous croon that humanizes his abstract and challenging tendencies. Still, enough psychedelic splicing and gleeful loops pop up in “Let’s Get Worn Away” to merit a warning label.
For all its giddy noise and cyborg saber rattling, warmth and charm still seep in. “Human Om” throbs with an appropriately meditative pulse; like a new-wave club hit from some parallel dimension, the song oozes and meanders, pushed along by languidly sequenced arpeggios and Fec’s vivid tunefulness. As a whole, Sweatbox Dynasty is a shimmering, hallucinatory odyssey. It’s not always clear where it’s going or what it’s after, but that only makes its electronic ecstasy more tantalizing.