Review: The Devils – Dark Circles

I have something I need to push off my chest. I hated the 1980’s. There, I said it. I absolutely hated that never-ending, god-awful decade. Sure, a good piece of the decade could be neatly classified as a textbook example of the D.I.Y. punk ethic: scores of incredible independent bands blazing trails and setting standards that many have followed and admired since, all the while doing it on their own terms. But, let’s face it, for the majority of the 1980s, I was in elementary school and far removed from the world that writers like Michael Azerrad — and many others, if less eloquently — have struggled to document and memorialize.
The 1980s to me were a massive blur of John Hughes melodrama, Nintendo theme songs, annoying florescent colors, big hair, and – -possibly above all — ridiculously clean and perky pop soundscapes. This is why the grunge that seemed to inaugurate the 1990s, for all its obvious debt to its punk-rock forefathers, was such a blessing. This was rough, dark music made by flawed human beings, a kind of rusty nail to seal closed a decade that brought the world Milli Vanilli and the word “gnarly.”

Nick Rhodes and Stephen Duffy were clearly more entrenched in the 1980’s than I ever was, as synth-pop artists and, more specifically, as members of the much-lauded Duran Duran. Their latest collaboration as The Devils, however, steers clear of what many icons of the age are already doing, opting to revisit the artistic fabric of the 1980’s over merely waxing nostalgic about it. What Rhodes and Duffy manage to come up with on their 12-track debut by taking this route are sometimes a guilty pleasure and sometimes an intense sonic experience but, even in its lulls, it’s something to hear.

The record seems to be informally split between two camps: the tracks that lean toward the more structured, pop-oriented pieces that Duran Duran junkies may anticipate, and looser journeys that hint at electronica and hip-hop as much as they do a strange breed of post-rock.

“Big Store,” the Bowie-ish “Dark Circles,” “Come Alive,” and “World Exclusive” are arguably the best examples of the former category, each of them utilizing electronic drum beats, synths, and wailing electric guitars to great ends. Sure, the carefully layered electronics of “Big Store” are impressive, but it’s the clear pop moments that sell the track: the soulful female back-up — by Sally and Evie — on the chorus, the pitch-perfect reverb over the lead vocals. It’s the same story on “Come Alive” and “World Exclusive.” The interplay between crafty guitar work and well-mixed electronics is the foundation, but the spacey delay effects on the vocals, the catchy backbeat, and the backing female vocals get you.

The record’s best moments may not be the times, however, when Rhodes and Duffy take the creative comb to their roots. Case in point: “Hawks Do Not Share,” a dreary ballad-ish piece that moves forward courtesy of a series of bass rumbles and keyboard murmurs that, if nailed to a wall in isolation, wouldn’t be out of place in one of Jim O’Rourke’s minimalist experiments (Happy Days, anyone?).

Even with the melancholy that seems to pepper the track, though, the pop streak is still clear, and the listener can hear echoes of Bowie from around the time he decided to watch David Fincher films and hang out with Mr. Reznor. Yes, yes, it’s dark, but in its heart it still wants you to sway and dance and move.

Other great examples of The Devils’ drive toward more sonically adventurous material are the tracks that open and close the record: “Memory Palaces” and the engulfing, eerily triumphant “The Tinsel Ritual,” respectively. Both utilize the same keyboards and production tricks as the tracks that surround them, but they seem to stand out more as collections of sounds, colors, and patterns than as clearly digestible pop morsels. In short, not for the radio but not to be tuned out.

Dark Circles, like most anything, is not without its weaker moments. Songs like “Signals in Smoke” seem to act as bookmarks inserted between pages with interesting passages, there more to hold your place in the proceedings than continue to draw you further in. It’s also a little difficult to warm up to “Newhaven-Dieppe,” a poppy, soundtrack-ready offering that seems too buoyant for the generally introspective and reflective material around it.

All in all, Dark Circle is a sharp record and a great debut for what may essentially be viewed by many as a passing project. For those who love the 1980’s, some may argue this is essential listening, and for those hated the decade, you’re in good company; but this still may be worth giving a spin.

The can of industrial strength Aqua Net is thankfully, thankfully, thankfully not included. – Delusions of Adequacy, Aug. 25, 2003

About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.