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Badlands
Dirty Beaches Badlands
Released 29 March 2011
Producer Alex Zhang Hungtai
Label Zoo Music
Length 27:51
Genre Rockabilly, lo-fi
Website myspace.com/dirtybeaches
85

Proudly wearing his influences on his sleeve, the well travelled Taiwanese born Alex Hungtai delivers the most eye opening record of the year. Drenched in reverb, his dark, exhilarating and sexy monotonous tunes accompany his Vega/Presley-type crooning perfectly. At only twenty-eight minutes long and composed of eight tracks, Hungtai favours repetition throughout, with the basic structure consisting of a short repetitive lead riff, simple strumming and effortless marching band type drums. Albeit not a very exciting prospect, in combination with more than occasional severe dissonance, Hungtai’s cold, distant vocals and an overwhelming sense of hope throughout the mostly bleak sounds makes for a beautiful yet disturbing experience.

'Speedway King' and 'Horses' is Badlands at its most aggressive with organ noodlings and repetitive bass drum hits forming a sickening carnival type atmosphere in the first track, only to be heightened by Hungtai’s intermittent wailing and apocalyptic strum to produce an overall hypnotic effect. The following track is more simplistic with a solid bassline forming the core with Suicide-like beats stretching the song throughout. This song also expresses Hungtai at his most impressionistic vocally speaking, with his nostalgic warbling reminiscent of a wide variety of previous rockabilly artists. However, nostalgia takes a backseat as heavily treated guitars purr and more often hiss making for an unpredictable and volatile listen. This trend continues.

'Sweet 17' is both lyrically (the title is a bit of a giveaway) and musically rather sleazy. Hungtai alters his vocal effect depending on the lyric he sings, from a hushed perverse struggle to excitable woops and choos with a beautiful but all too brief guitar interlude that strengthens the songs connotations, probably the cleverest track on the album.

If asked to compile a top ten list of the best tracks of 2011, there would be no hesitation to add 'A Hundred Highways', 'True Blue' and 'Lord Knows Best' to that list. The first of these although considerably slower than the previous two is stylistically quite similar although altogether more romantic. Distorted strings swirl around lyrics of lost love and the struggle in the pursuit of it. What was a tender, dreamy baseline becomes hidden behind a hugely distorted lead riff, possibly suggesting the hopelessness and struggle of pursuit. More than any track on Badlands, 'A Hundred Highways' blends the simplistic and the complex, to worship and to detest.

The following two tracks display a change in pace on Badlands. 'True Blue' is the simplest track on the album with little effects applied, thus enhancing the impact of the baritone-delivered vocals accompanied by a beautiful guitar loop. Lyrically, there is a greater sadness here than on other tracks making for an uneasy ballad further highlighting Hungtai’s unorthodox and fascinating approach to song construction. This continues on the much applauded release 'Lord Knows Best'. A dreamy piano loop persists throughout this undeniable love song. Distorted synths end the song perfectly, the album’s finest moment.

The final two tracks 'Black Nylon' and 'Hotel' which are both instrumental are a slight letdown in comparison with the aforementioned possibly due to their positioning on the album. Hungtai has credited David Lynch as a key influence on his music and this is probably best demonstrated through the dark, sombre moods generated by both pieces.

Overall, taken as a whole, Badlands through its unique distorted simplicity evokes a suppressed aggression and untamed sadness which at times touches on disturbing but is always stunning. A fascinating record.

- Conor Hynds