The Black Queen – Infinite Games


Album

Infinite Games

Label

Federal Prisoner

Year

2018

For Fans Of

Nine Inch Nails, Tears For Fears, Health.

Summary

Back into that fever dream.

Rating

80 / 100

When The Black Queen announced their January 2019 Australian tour earlier this year, I bought a ticket ASAP for a few reasons. Firstly, their debut album, 2016’s sublime ‘Fever Daydream‘, is about as perfect as a first full-length could ever get. Anyone who’s heard ‘Ice To Never‘, ‘That Death Cannot Touch‘, and ‘Distanced‘ will know exactly what I’m on about. Secondly, this trio’s 80s-inclined darkwave, synth-pop flavour is next level stuff, and I need to see it live in the flesh. The third reason for that purchase was with second LP, ‘Infinite Games‘, landing well before said Aussie tour kicks off, I knew that I would – at the very least – enjoy their newer material. And because I’m always right, I was indeed correct in my own assumption of digging the band’s newest creation.

Written, produced, tracked, mixed, and mastered entirely by The Black Queen themselves, ‘Infinite Games‘ is a really good record. There’s no fuckin’ denying that fact. Album #2 sees singer Greg Puciato (ex-Dillinger Escape Plan), and producers/instrumentalists Joshua Eustis (ex-Nine Inch Nails) and Steven Alexander (former TDEP and NIN tech) flexing at their most confident yet. What they’ve created here fits so nicely and effortlessly into their moody 80s soundscapes and bleak darkwave aesthetic in terms of composition, atmosphere, lyrics and instrumentation. The trio really understands their niche and they have definitely leaned right into that formula for much of this new record. Though I sure ain’t complaining!

On top of that, the band’s rhythmic, pulsating and memorable barn-burning cuts they’ve become so well known for are all feature in solid supply. The boppin’, repeated drum loops and melodic licks of ‘Thrown Into The Dark‘, the zorby and percussive ‘No Accusations‘, the whirring sounds and dancefloor movements of ‘Lies About You‘, and the shining, romantic pumping heights of ‘Spatial Boundaries‘? Banger, banger, banger, BANGER! Everything that makes The Black Queen so fantastic is all utilised in these four tracks and across much of ‘Infinite Games‘. From layered synth pads and bright electro stabs; heavy Nine Inch Nails vibes; infectious-as-hell percussion; that noir nighttime aurora; smoothed-out low-end; to the creepy timbre yet luscious delivery of Greg’s stellar vocals.

Whereas most retro, synth-heavy pop these days feels too nostalgic and too derivative (even from artists I like, such as The Midnight and Pale Waves), The Black Queen make it their own in a way. It bows to them, not the other way around.

Joshua Eustis and Steven Alexander’s production work here will be more or less the unsung heroes of this new record, I feel. Their programming and instrumental vision create such a fantastic foundation for the vocal melodies and patterns to soar off from. This was true of ‘Fever Daydream‘ and it’s absolutely true of ‘Infinite Games‘ too. The pair’s use of filters, delay, reverb, and modulated elements keep your attention centred on the production and arrangements just as much as Greg’s brilliant vocal work does for his own inclusions. It’s never once distracting, only ever additive and supportive.

One great moment of this is the haunting ‘Porcelain Veins‘. This is the band charting into slightly new territory, but it works. ‘Porcelain Veins‘ creates a familiar yet alien-like eeriness with darkened acoustic guitar strums sitting to the mix’s left side, slightly muffled and distorted electric leads underneath Greg’s breathless vocals, and occasional ominous electronic licks to the right. All as the lyrics paint images of lost youth, faded reckless memories, dramatic love and even suggested drug abuse. (“Veins” being the operative word in this song’s story, FYI). It’s incredible stuff, and it proves that when these guys experiment, it can really pay off. I also now really want to hear a Black Queen acoustic set, just sayin’.

As for Greg himself, this album is the vocalist being brutally honest on so many levels. As this is the kind of music his voice was practically made for; the kind of music that he’s so clearly passionate about too. His range and cadence fit this old-meets-new style of The Black Queen perfectly! Greg’s dynamic control and commanding yet sinister tone makes intimate, whispery lines like “There is nothing I want more than to die with you next to me” (‘No Accusations’), and “…we’re both so full of pain/but I’ll cut mine out of you” (‘Even Still I Want To‘) so off-putting yet also so memorable too. With The Black Queen’s latest body of work, the singer isn’t hiding at all – he sounds like he’s in his natural habitat. And I fucking love that.

Elsewhere, on closer ‘One Edge Of Two‘ – another “weirder” moment where the band’s new-found ambition and experimentation are fully realized – we see some of the most telling lyrics from Greg. Conflicted lines about him “hanging on the edge of two worlds“, about finding balance, about how he acts artistically and personally, and about how he telegraphs these moves, as it were. It’s forth-coming and revealing, especially in lieu of his previous band’s demise too. In retrospect, this is actually what I disliked about the last Dillinger Escape Plan record. That it seemed like Greg was putting on a mask of sorts just to make that record work; that it wasn’t what he actually wanted as a musician or artist. It also didn’t help that I was also in the minority of reviewers who didn’t merely slap a perfect score upon ‘Disassociation‘ simply because it was the final TDEP record either. (I will forever stand by that review).

The Black Queen. (There’s also a “fourth member”, and that’s Jesse Draxler, the guy behind their new label Federal Prisoner and who also created both of their album covers. It’s going to be really interesting to see how this band-label collective creates and operate together as times goes on). 

The three-piece have redirected the overwhelming catchiness, sheer vibrancy and instant hook of ‘Fever Daydream‘ into different, more-challenging avenues. Personally, I don’t think this is a terrible move, but I do feel their debut is and will be remembered as the superior release overall. Just because this time around, it may take you a few extra listens for it all to “click” when compared with ‘Fever Daydream‘. That was my experience with this record but it’s still worth the investment. Because you see, ‘Infinite Games‘ is a “headier” and darker listen; one with more frequent noise/ambient passages that’ll feel more “artsy” than anything else. I’d even go so far as to say that’s it’s not quite as cohesive as their debut was; what with its longer-winded moments that even make it feel a little disjointed.

That being said, some of the album’s “experimental” parts don’t stick. For instance, ‘Your Move‘ is basically five minutes of nothing really happening. Despite the confrontational lyrics, it’s all very… abstract, musically. Some people will love that the track never goes much beyond its starting low-key-point; that it never reaches a higher dynamic in terms of energy, beats and vocals; remaining restrained and lingering in the background. Others will be bored shitless and wonder what the hell the band was thinking by including it. As for me, I’m somewhere in the middle. While I appreciate the song’s subtle vibe and how it creeps into your consciousness in a cerebral manner, it pails in comparison with the “proper”, more-direct songs placed around it and doesn’t grab me all that much. (I’m a shill for a great hook, leave me alone!)

The same occurs with ‘Impossible Condition‘. What with its eerie ambience swirling around over and over, the punchy drumbeat repeating the same measure throughout, with rising and falling glossy synths oh so slowly unfolding as it all goes on. It’s definitely a slow-burn and while Greg’s vocals float across the piece like a soul smoothly slipping into the ether, it’s a track that’ll be forgotten in light of the record’s far more instantly gratifying tracks. It also doesn’t help that the last third of ‘Impossible Condition‘ is made up of soft electro swells and distant keys fluttering away into nothingness. The overly brief and rather airy ‘100 To Zero‘, with its reverb-heavy vocals and twinkling lower-bit notes also suffers from this supposed aimlessness too. Again, it’s just all very abstract. By itself, it’s a decent enough interlude but it becomes inconsequential when placed into the grander scheme of things, sadly.

Conclusion

This will be a jarring record for many who were so enamoured with ‘Fever Daydream’. The reason is that ‘Infinite Games’, while still sublime, isn’t really an “album”. It’s a “soundtrack”. What I mean by this distinction is that it’s like a score written for an unknown source material; some obscure inspiration or life experience that myself and others won’t be savvy too. To vindicate this thought, The Black Queen even described this LP on their Bandcamp as a time capsule: “Locked inside are people, ideas, times, places, and memories. Please take care of them all. We can’t wait for you to add your own to them.” To be more specific, apparently, this record deals with the breakup of TDEP, that band’s bus crash in Poland, and even Joshua Eustis returning to Telefon Tel Aviv.

While this most certainly adds some context to the mystique qualities of ‘Infinite Games’ and Greg Puciato’s cryptic lyricism, there’s still so much that may never be understood, with it instead becoming the listeners own. Whether that’s a plus or a hindrance for you will depend on your mileage with not just ‘Infinite Games’, but their debut too. For yours truly, I can still embrace and internalize the engrossing sounds of ‘Infinite Games’ – because it’s a well-written, dark, dynamic, and off-putting listen that’s right up my alley – yet The Black Queen already stole my heart with a previous fevered vision.

Tracklisting

  1. Even Still I Want To
  2. Thrown Into The Dark
  3. No Accusations
  4. Your Move
  5. Lies About You
  6. Impossible Condition
  7. Spatial Boundaries
  8. 100 to Zero
  9. Porcelain Veins
  10. One Edge of Two

‘Infinite Games’ is out this Friday, September 28th.

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