There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Accessibility has never seemed to be much of a concern for D.C. synth-pop ensemble Br’er. Its first two full-length albums, Of Shemales and Kissaboos and City of Ice, are dense, combining classical influences and heavily distorted industrial sounds. But when it comes down to it, the star of the show here is band leader and vocalist Benjamin Schurr, whose voice permeates each and every track. Br’er’s third album, Masking, closely follows this mold, albeit in a slightly more accessible manner, making it the group’s strongest effort yet.
The songs can be grouped into two different categories—half of the album is heavy and aggressive, while the other is poppy and pretty. This might seem like it would cause dissonance across the album, but it has the opposite effect, and numerous callbacks and thematic similarities emerge throughout the album. Case in point: The album’s opener, aptly titled “Intro,” consists of the melodies from later tracks “Chanel Divinity” and “Praise.” It’s a sonic decision that gives Masking a certain cohesiveness, despite its drastically fluctuating dynamic shifts.
At its heaviest, Masking comes off like Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails worship. The album’s title track, “Masking,” kicks off with a near-nauseating drone before launching into pulsing industrial sounds and distorted screams. It’s definitely the heaviest track on the album, and paired with the stylistically similar “Deer In Headlights,” it serves as a fitting climax before the album’s dénoument.
On Masking’s less aggressive tracks, euphonious melodies and dance-pop rhythms hide a darker world of sex and violence. “Reprobate” is a prime example, as it’s one of the only songs to feature live drums. Drummer Ben Usie’s finessed percussion kicks off the track before it becomes a danceable mix of heavily layered synths and lyrics exploring the effects of sexual exploitation. It’s a fitting highlight for an album that, at its heart, is a meditation on love, sexuality, and genderqueer identity politics.
But not every track on Masking is quite as successful. “For You,” the album’s midway point, is held together by Schurr’s ripping personal apology and anchored by a synth part halfway through that channels NIN’s The Fragile. However, the song rests entirely upon these two elements and fails to stand up amongst the more well-composed tracks on the album.
Br’er favors electronics over traditional instruments, which doesn’t always work out to the group’s advantage. “Release,” which is little more than a minute-plus drone track, provides a danceable interlude between proper tracks “Reprobate” and “Hate Finds A Way,” but it doesn’t really serve much of a purpose other than filler noise. There’s something to be said about the consistency of sound that electronics allow for, but Br’er fails to realize the powerful potential of Masking’s more visceral songs.
This is intentional: Schurr prefers to separate the Br’er experience into two very specific realms, album and live performance. For this reason, the band released an alternate version of its lead single, “Chanel Divinity,” featuring live drums, a slower build up, and some additional and more sexually explicit lyrics. It all adds up to a much more immediate and human-sounding song; Br’er’s true unmasking.