Hides bits and pieces of a great ambient pop album amid the greebled sci-fi bulk of a GOOD Music blockbuster.
You’re in a restaurant, and the classic rock station on the speakers is vaguely bubbling beneath your consciousness. All of a sudden, you hear the most incredible wash of ambient synths. You wonder what long-lost pop hit you’re hearing. Then the beat drops, and it’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
This sensation is too common on 070 Shake’s Modus Vivendi, which hides bits and pieces of a great ambient pop album amid the greebled sci-fi bulk of a GOOD Music blockbuster. The best moments among the 14 tracks here usually come at the beginning or end of the song, when she lets her voice flicker over a solemn pad or a far-off clamor of gears and pistons, than when she’s actually riding the beat like a rapper or a pop singer. Usually, albums like this would benefit from more songs than miasmas; this one would benefit from more miasmas than songs.
Modus Vivendi sustains an atmosphere more vividly than most pop albums. Like fellow Kanye protégés Kid Cudi and Travis Scott, she’s obsessed with space, the moon, stars, and some of the substances you can take to get closer to them. What makes Modus stand out is how much it actually feels like space. Lasers zip up and down the side of the stereo field as distant machines rattle like the walls of a rocket in liftoff. Square-wave pads impart a welcome whiff of New Age futurism, the same vibe Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds cultivated a decade ago.
Then the beat drops. Modus Vivendi is chock-full of the distorted bass hits that were all over Yeezus, which makes sense, as Kanye’s right-hand man Mike Dean had a major helping hand here. This is one of many albums taking after that one in its blats of harsh Inception noise and drums that sound like leftover Transformer parts assembling themselves in a junkyard. The music doesn’t push nearly as far as Yeezus, or maybe we’re just used to that sound so many deconstructed club beats later, so we’re just left with pop songs that are less melodic than we wish. There’s something wrong if the most melodically engaging moments of your record are the ambient interludes instead of the actual hooks that are supposed to get stuck in our heads.
Often we’re expecting to be spirited away to dreamland and are instead confronted with an ugly hulk of a pop song. “Guilty Conscience” opens with the kind of fake synth-horns Boards of Canada made a whole career pilfering from educational videos – then it turns into something resembling Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” without the sassy sense of humor. The first two tracks are all elfin melismas and walls of vocoder, and we’re in a blissed-out reverie until “Morrow” rights itself with the unwieldiness of Doomsday springing back to life in Batman vs Superman.
There are moments when Shake’s sense of atmosphere squares with a sense of songcraft. The final two tracks, “Terminal 5” and “Flight 513,” drift pleasantly. With its chintzy 808 tick-tock, “Rocketship” has some of the same low-budget chic as Pharrell’s beats for Ariana Grande. At its best, Modus Vivendi feels like a pop answer to astral fantasies like Drexciya’s Grava 4 or Oneohtrix Point Never’s Returnal. But for much of its runtime, it’s disappointingly earthbound.