ACT!: Universalist

ACT!: Universalist

Some of the most successful music Psutka’s released since his dance days.

ACT!: Universalist

2.5 / 5

David Psutka has spent the better part of this decade trying out a seemingly endless array of styles. Under a variety of aliases (most recently and notably, Egyptrixx and ANAMAI), he’s tried his hand at house, abstract electronics and song-based drone music. Now, he’s adopted yet another moniker, ACT!, for his most outwardly gleeful and colorful record to date. Universalist is certainly the most unique release Psutka has put out thus far, and perhaps signals that he’s finally on his way to making a singularly great record.

Throughout all of Psutka’s past projects, his production skills are unquestionably great. Every sound on his records is crisp and well-mixed, and he has a knack for warping his electronics into mutant textures. On Universalist opener “Ecstatica / On Patrol,” this element is on full display. The way he arranges the vibrant MIDI tones and synthesizers is a beautiful mess, as is the jackhammer single-note melody that carries the track to the end. Looking just at the bones that built this track, there’s a lot to love about Psutka’s approach to electronic music.

There are plenty of moments like these across Universalist, and overall it’s clear that Psutka is both in the higher echelons of electronic producers and overflowing with great ideas. The problem with his work is that it still sounds like he’s figuring out how to take these golden nuggets and turn them into something worth sticking around for. Only a handful of tracks here cross the three-minute mark, and the entire album runs less than 30 minutes. Even across multiple listens, piecing out exactly how these brief gestures are supposed to cohere into something grander is difficult.

The most confounding, and ultimately dry, moments occur when these short tracks are packed full of unrelated, randomly strung together quarter-songs. In barely two-and-a-half minutes, “No Conflict” cycles through ethereal noise, laid-back polytonal grooves and a surprisingly triumphant melodic section that devolves into pointillistic sputters of notes. It’s already a lot to squeeze into a brief amount of time, and the only thing that seems to be tying the whole thing together is a few crossfades and quick shifts between these disparate parts.

Still, amid many false starts, unexpected endings and awkward transitions lies some of the most successful music Psutka’s released since his dance days from the start of the decade. “Trader” avoids the scattered pitfalls of other tracks and offers four minutes of welcome cohesion. Not only is the track’s main melody one of the strongest on the album, but it develops in a much more seamless manner. There’s almost an arena-ready feel to the opening section, and the way everything melts into blissful nothingness is a more patient transition than anywhere else here.

“Lava Valley” is equally successful for the opposite reasons. It’s the shortest track on the album, but feels like the most worthwhile vignette of them all. The rolling keyboard arpeggios and deep, guttural groaning is significantly more memorable than some of the other sound patches. The music matches the track title in creating a cartoonish landscape that still feels oddly threatening. It’s the first time that the otherworldly, dystopic mood of Universalist fully comes through, only before the album finishes on a couple of languid mood pieces.

Universalist is not without its successes, but too often it delves into territory that offers nothing other than mild interest. If you listen to past Psutka projects, particularly ANAMAI, you can hear how his work is more than capable of being melded into something enjoyable, albums full of flashes of beauty. This new album isn’t a grand, career-defining statement, but it’s closer than past attempts and reasserts that keeping Psutka and his collaborators on your radar is more than worthwhile.

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