The old saying goes that you should never meet your heroes, since there's no way they can live up to your expectations. Maxims can be complete and utter bullshit though, and MSTRKRFT will tell you why. Though the production duo of Jesse Keeler and Alex “Al-P” Puodziukas has been relatively quiet over the last five years, they've just returned with Operator, a noise-spiked cycle of cranked-metabolism house beats, vintage keyboard sounds, and guest vocals from a few artists that helped shaped the Toronto duo's perceptions of punk back in the day.
In terms of outside collaborators, Operator is a much different beast than 2009's Fist of God. Both albums bleed high energy bpms and dabble in the odd French Touch-inspired synth melody, but while the older LP mixed in mainstream figures like Ghostface Killah and John Legend, Operator snagged its extras from the underground.
Album centrepiece "Party Line," for instance, features Ian Svenonius, a Washington, D.C. icon that fronted sartorially-dressed, politically-grounded project the Nation of Ulysses back in the early '90s before moving through soul and garage sounds with the Make-Up and, most recently, Chain and the Gang. Svenonius doesn't scream above the hard slammed four-on-the-floors, though. An exercise in contrast, he instead chooses to sneer sinisterly through spoken word assertions like, "No one's going to hold your hand anymore/It's tough, get used to it." Fans of the guy since their youths, working with the singer left MSTRKRFT giddy.
"Guys just a bit older talk about Minor Threat or Black Flag, or whatever. For me, Nation of Ulysses was the band," Keeler explains over a three-way call with Al-P and Ion, noting Svenonius' participation was a major coup.
Also peppered into the LP are appearances from Jacob Bannon, the throat-shredding screamer from metalcore crew Converge, and Sonny Kay, a visual artist that fronted slate grey goth/hardcore hybridists the VSS in the mid '90s. Both Keeler and Puodziukas speak of Kay with great reverence, describing his old band's 1997 swansong, Nervous Circuits, as a "masterpiece record." Like the haunting vocal effects affixed to that decades-old LP, his twitchy yells on Operator's "Priceless" sound as if he's howling his disdain for the world through an industrial fan.
"Because we had been away so long, we had the opportunity to do something that had nothing to do with Fist of God," AL-P explains. "We started putting together ideas and certain collaborations that go way back for us, people that we had listened to or had inspired us in the past, even before we started making electronic music. We love Sonny's voice, and when we went to mix that song, we did pay homage to the VSS vocal style."
Despite striving for certain aesthetics, MSTRKRFT didn't give their guests much guidance. They placed plenty of trust in the instincts of their collaborators, a move they believe paid off.
"What is the point of having these super talented people if you don't let them do the thing they're so good at," Keeler says rhetorically, pausing for a moment before laughing through the reveal of his sole request. "I think I said to Sonny at one point, 'Just please don't write a song about partying, night clubs or dancing.' There's a thing that happens when a non-dance artist thinks they're making dance music, where they feel like they have to sing about it."
As for the rest of Operator, the record finds the duo offering up their loosest set of sounds yet. While locking into precision grooves, the record hops from punkier pieces towards Justice-like pumpers ("Runaway"), highball-queasy minimal house ("Playing with Itself"), and the kinds of ominous and melancholy tones you'd expect would score a Nicolas Winding Refn snuff film ("Morning of the Hunt").
The album title is a reference to old military slang, wherein a solider would merely be considered the operator of their equipment. The duo tracked somewhere in the neighbourhood of a hundred hours worth of improv sessions in Toronto and L.A., exploring various 808s, MPCs and analogue keyboards along the way. Al-P explains that from there, they whittled the pieces down into more manageable lengths.
"We'd just start taking away the lame moments and start focusing on the great moments, putting it together in a way where you can hear the genesis of the idea, and then through the course of the song it crystallizes. That's the pay off."
While casting themselves as mere operators, the earnestness of MSTRKRFT's return reveals their take on electronic music still has a lot of heart.