PRO BONO is so cosmopolitan that it’s newly foreign. It evades classification. During the opening track ‘Europeanist’, vocalist Deni urges you to “give up your culture,” though as he repeats the line his promise changes. First he says you’ll “find your future,” but then he changes tack and, with barely a shift in tone, sings that by doing so you’ll “destroy your future.”
It’s the first song on the album, but it’s the last to (seemingly) chastise you. ‘Europeanist’ is laced with the aforementioned slogans, but amid the 8-bit synth and woodwork percussion the platitudes take on a new meaning, notwithstanding the loaded title of the song. These are impassively delivered suggestions which you can choose to either take or leave, but there’s a hint of the inevitable in Deni’s resigned delivery. The choice is an illusion. There is no future. Or at least, not one very different to now.
Mental Powers invest a lot of energy into not sounding invested at all. In their determination to never do the same thing twice, on PRO BONO they shirk an identity altogether, to the point where the record often sounds like a practice in hypothetical style compounds. While similarly hyperactive groups like Gang Gang Dance use a flurry of worldly aesthetic signposts to demonstrate this era’s cultural infidelity, Mental Powers are more subtle. Disney whimsy (‘Hopus’) is slotted between awkwardly regimented dance on the one hand (‘Club Foot’), and grand, gold dusk synth melancholy on the other (‘Mutual States’). What results is pop music that at first seems to work against itself: songs stampede the impressions created by others. Ugly sounds harass pretty ones. During each song, there’s usually one element that pushes back on the prevailing mood; that aims to sabotage it in some way. Always around the corner, a shock to the system awaits.
Mental Powers is a strange band, and PRO BONO is very close to being unique. And yet, for all its cerebral meshing of conflicting sounds, and despite its seeming desire to be “art” before “pop”, it’s an affecting record. You will grow to enjoy the canned beats, the morse code synths, the sudden high pitch incursions, the always slightly-off guitar lines. With time, you will process this data and understand. There are moments of immersive beauty, such as the aforementioned ‘Mutual States’, which recounts a kind of ceremonial human bonding via hands and eye. Then there are moments that are utterly facetious in their jarring dynamics, such as ‘Communicate in Code’.
The production renders these songs slightly clinical at times, accentuating sharpness over depth. But the lack of warmth, of sonic fingerprints, of evidence that it was performed, seems crucial here. They’re a band with limited means (instruments), but they sound determined to make pop music with an emphasis on modern texture despite these limitations. More importantly, they seem determined to sound like they’re from nowhere. This is world music in the modern digital Western sense of the term, a wide and deep net taking in sounds and inclinations from .zip files the world over. When Deni sings “Give up your culture, find your future”, maybe it’s this stylistic neutrality he’s talking about. Burn your badges, hang up your disco shoes, fold away your denims. Absorb it all.
Label: Badminton Bandit
Release date: October 2012