Screen Vinyl Image chose an opportune moment to reemerge. D.C. is a much kinder place for experimental dance music now than when the band first formed from the ashes of Alcian Blue in 2007. The numerous independent electronic groups making off-kilter tunes with danceable beats constitute a small, yet significant wave within the city. U Hall frequently welcomes up-and-coming talent to BackBar, while Select DC has brought experimental electronic music to so many bars, houses, and DIY venues that it’s getting hard to keep track.
Dark dance music has never had a more receptive audience in D.C., and on SVI’s latest two-side cassette split with with Texas industrial punks Bloody Knives, the group delivers exactly that. For just under an hour, the two groups pummel whatever speaker system they’re occupying with fuzzy guitars, crunchy synths, and propulsive dance club rhythms.
Most pieces written about SVI jump quickly to genre: Is the band coldwave, darkwave, shoegaze, or all of the above? Regardless of the answer to that question, the duo’s influences and sonic peers are easy to identify. Sample a few of the tracks for a taste of the pulsing urgency of 120 Days, the feedback of A Place To Bury Strangers, and the general impression that maybe you’re just listening to the Soft Moon. The band’s latest batch of songs stays safely within this cold, clinical realm, and not in a bad way.
The husband-and-wife duo have been making dark, shoegaze-y music for almost two decades—-instrumentalist/vocalist Jake Reid has also produced, mixed and mastered numerous records that register on the post-punk, noise-pop spectrum. On their new split, Jake and Kim Reid continue their sonic plunge into the depths of eerie nocturnal coldwave. The band still excels at creating moody textures, weaving together a canvas of thick, distorted guitars, analog synths, and monotone vocals atop drum-machine rhythms. Tracks like “Edge of Tomorrow” blend and layer each instrumental detail carefully, building steadily and consciously to a climactic finish. Each song repeats this formula for maximum spookage (just in time for Halloween, no less!).
But there’s also a less flattering way to see SVI’s carefully constructed coldwave/noise-pop. In fact, the new record is also a reminder of why one of SVI’s label heads needed to explain what coldwave actually is: While SVI’s new songs are rich with detail, the band returns again and again to the same set of sounds. On its last record, 51:21, SVI’s range was a bit wider: the duo dabbled more noticeably in hip-hop and tooled around with an acoustic guitar for at least one song. Though the brooding, ominous atmosphere remained consistent, SVI used these deviations to demonstrate their sonic depth; its moodiness wasn’t one-note.
No doubt the Reids pay careful attention to tone and have explored different sounds over the course of their musical careers, but that’s not the case here: The repetition of similar tones at similar BPMs flattens the record. The consistent formula doesn’t help either—-a drum-machine beat programmed at a high BPM begins, a guitar riff kicks in under the synths, Jake intones, the song builds to a wall-of-sound conclusion that eventually fades out. The only radical departure from this formula comes by way of “I’m Not,” a melancholy ’80s/‘90s guitar-pop track that doesn’t put them in a particularly innovative space—-contemporary referential indie-pop bands abound in D.C. and elsewhere.
None of this is to say that the members of Screen Vinyl Image aren’t technically skilled or knowledgeable students of post-punk-y electronic music and shoegaze. As individual tracks, the songs are largely dutiful impressions of what an experimental electronic noise band should be. But perhaps even in this interesting moment for niche electronic genres, it’s hard to ignore the shortcomings of a band whose influences are everywhere. There’s a reason why Silicon Valley tech bros try to act like rock stars: innovation and (sigh) disruption is punk. Ever heard about how Nirvana killed hair metal? According to this ethos, bands whose scope is limited to what’s already been tried in a genre will continue to operate on the periphery. Bless the cassette crate-digging D.C. coldwave fan who finds this album, because if they don’t like it, there are certainly other options.
Stream the split below.