Heralded ‘album of the year’ by Nine Inch Nails main man and Apple Music executive Trent Reznor, TOBACCO’s fourth album “Sweatbox Dynasty” rides the line between contemporary electronic dance music and obsessive knob twiddling audio boxing. Reznor’s endorsement weighs heavily in my brain as I approach this album for my first and second listen. The group, whose name holds the identity of its leader, Thomas Fec, bears a small resemblance in sound to the garage electronics explored on later Nine Inch Nails albums “The Slip” and “Hesitation Marks”. Their approach to electronic music pulls heavily from the past, including the kind of synth sounds that made up the score to the Netflix series Stranger Things. However, this album is markedly postmodern in its serving as the soundtrack to a technologically amalgamated culture that views signposts of the future as retro conjuring nostalgia. The temptation to label TOBACCO’s “Sweatbox Dynasty” as retro or nostalgic is not befitting of its actual accomplishment or sentiment.
This is clearly a musical statement of its time. Technically it could have been produced decades ago but its instrumentation would lack the retro connotations signified in the present day. The instruments TOBACCO works with sound modernly retro in a way that is awkwardly fashionable in 2016. His production lacks the subtleties of your standard electronic dance music and benefits from its brash lo-fi techno trash soundscapes. This is what makes it sound simultaneously alien and refreshing to accustomed modern ears. It doesn’t hurt that these tracks are danceable as well.
The vocals are buried on this record with enough distortion and low end bass frequencies that they make Al Jourgenson’s vocals in Ministry sound clean. This record doesn’t really sound like Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode or any modern producer of EDM. This record sounds like it was produced by the fictional corporations in Blade Runner and The Terminator. The hip hop beats and keyboard blasts come straight off the sci-fi assembly line and lend themselves to that shoulder shrugging dancing popularised in an endless list of movies from the 80s (think of the scene in Terminator where Arnold Schwarzenegger marches through the Tech Noir dance club and you’ll get the picture).
The album opener “Human Om” serves as a welcome call that might as well say “welcome to the machine” with its industrial marching beats and blaring whistles. This is cyber music all the way. The bells in “Memory Girl” are reminiscent of an 80s dance track while “Let’s Get Worn Away” is chocked full with as many riffs, starts and stops as an 80s Metallica song. Neither song would sound in place on any 80’s themed playlist. This is new school electronic music with an old school approach.
Album of the year? Who is to say> TOBACCO is definitely not communal music and is best heard in isolation on headphones. It grows on you as the melodies reveal themselves through the fuzz with each listen. It might not be for everyone but could surely be what sparks the creative interest of some.