MSTRKRFT Abandons Tradition and Finds Noise Nirvana on Third Album 'Operator'
Like an assault rifle, it comes in a clamorous barrage of snare. It fades slightly, then the synths come in rough and raw. The volume pumps red through speakers that are totally blown. It's aggressive, harsh and somewhat alarming. In an age where “tropical house” thrives, it's a musical middle finger. It refuses to be pretty. John Legend is nowhere in sight.
Operator is MSTRKRFT's third album and first in seven years. It's a re-introduction to the Canadian duo's sound both for fans and the artists, but dig a little deeper and it starts to feel like the last decade was more preamble, the foundational steps to a more refined vision of unrefinery.
“We didn't set out to make a record that sounded like this,” says MSTRKRFT's Jesse Keeler. “The only thing that we really planned to do was not censor ourselves as we had ideas. If we liked something, that was enough of a reason to see it through rather than worrying about 'how will this music be used?'”
Keeler just came off a five year stint with his dance-punk noise duo Death From Above 1979. He left the world of Serato and dove headfirst into a loud mess of live drums, crunchy guitars, and weary amps. It was a back to roots moment that rekindled inspiration and invigorated his work with MSTRKRFT partner Al-P.
The two came up together in Toronto's incestuous punk scene, flitting between a variety of bands that comprised more or less different combinations of the same eight people. They bonded 20 years ago over a mutual and exclusive love for electronic music.
“In a world of guitars,” Al says, “we were the guys who were always like 'why don't we do a synth part?'”
Death From Above blew up in 2004 and almost immediately crashed and burned. MSTRKRFT came together in its wake, and alongside acts from Justice to Boys Noize, the duo's 2006 debut The Looks helped foster a nascent movement of electro house based on a punk rock ethos. It was more leather jackets and whiskey than kandi bracelets and ecstasy, but scene lines slowly blurred.
In 2009, MSTRKRFT's sophomore LP Fist of God packed major mainstream appeal. Features from John Legend, E-40, and N.O.R.E met with a more polished sound. By the end of the album's two-year tour run, MSTRKRFT and its contemporaries were sharing bills with established trance, house, and techno names. Popularity had merged the two scenes into one giant EDM umbrella, and it started to leave a sour taste in the group's collective mouth.
“(I remember) walking back and forth at Coachella one year and hearing the same songs over and over again. It felt so boring,” Keeler says. “So many times we'd go to play somewhere and some opener would say 'are you guys going to play this song or that song?' My response would be 'you can play all the hits, because we don't even know what they are.'”
Maybe that's why Death From Above got back together in 2011. Keeler and Al-P left dance in disgust to soak up the sound of white noise. It wasn't a hiatus necessarily, but when they eventually reconvened, shit was different.
"Let's face it, we produced a lot of music that was formatted in other parts of our career,” Al says. “We've been away for so long, I think we felt like that break afforded us a bit of freedom to do something different. I think we needed to do something different, and not only for ourselves. I don't know what the reaction would have been if we just came with more of the same stuff from five years ago."
The pair entered the studio with one mission: to create an album that not only captured the spirit of a live band but could actively be recreated in a live setting.
“That was an important step to figure out,” Al says. “In the past, people have asked us to play live, and we always declined. We never have been able to achieve the same level of production that we did on the records on stage without just kind of using a computer, which is what everybody else was doing when they would be playing 'live.' For us, coming from a players background, that wasn't live.”
That goal dictated that conventions be tossed.
“With DJing, you spend a lot of time in the music-making process making sure that what you're creating is going to be workable for DJs,” Keeler says. “There was an early point in the process where we by default started working on something that way and it ruined it … who wants to hear a minute of kick drum intro for every song? It's so ridiculous.”
Operator's first note is a punch in the face, its 10 tracks a rush of raucous, head-banging beats. It would be just as easy to mosh through its entirety as it would be to dance, and if all goes well, there's a bit of both when MSTRKRFT performs it. Gone are the Serato decks. The dudes turned in their turntables and instead plug in their entire studio set up. Everything they made to make the album appears on stage, and they scramble like madmen to produce each sound.
“It's nerve wracking, but time flies by because we're working so much,” Keeler says. “There's not a moment where you're not juggling at least eight things, but it's very rewarding.”
If some of it seems unrecognizable, that's because it is. MSTRKRFT uses Operator as a collection of motifs from which to ground a performance, but if they're speaking honestly, half the set is pure improvisation, another harsh reaction to that moment five years ago walking in the Twitlight Zone of Coachella's repetition.
“Before we started working on the album, our intention was to just improvise and have no songs,” Keeler says. “Over the course of our working on the music and then starting to make the album, we realized that was an unnecessary extreme in terms of whatever push back was happening.”
“(But) we needed to frame it that way for ourselves,” Al continues, “to make sure that we would be able to do that.”
Along with the musical equipment, the guys set up a full recording rig so as to capture each and every live set. They listen to the recordings later and pick out the parts they really like. That stuff will appear on the next MSTRKRFT album, creating a beautiful and organic loop of the new MSTRKRFT point of view.
It took 10 years, but the duo has once and for all truly bridged the gap between live band and electronic outfit. They've filled the airwaves between punk, metal, and dance with their own unruly sound. It's not for everyone, but MSTRKRFT doesn't care. In the words of the album's track “Party Line,” “things are gonna get real tough around here. Get used to it.”