Under the moniker Vitalic, Pascal Arbez-Nicolas has always sat at the fringes of French house. You rarely hear his name in the same breath as French dynamos Justice and Daft Punk, but aside from simple geographical ties, all three share common textural and philosophical threads. Vitalic just whittles them down to their nucleus and then pushes them to the absolute red. His peers favor sleek dance floor revery where Vitalic bumps up against punk rock dynamism, producing some of the most exhausting and breathtaking floor-annihilators of the past decade. 2005’s Ok Cowboy was an exercise in brutal simplicity and conciseness, offering crushing club terrors like “Poney Part 1″ and “My Friend Dario” next to stripped down jungle-gym workouts like “Wooo.” 2009’s Flashmob was a more vibrant and ornate affair, but hardly rolled back the energy levels. “Terminateur Benelux” is still the scariest thing you’ll probably ever dance to and “Second Lives” turned M83’s cathartic electrogaze highways into a breathless floor-bomber.
Vitalic’s third LP, Rave Age, arrives three years after Flashmob and sees Arbez trying to expand his sound with the addition of vocals and more dynamic song structures. The results are varied, to say the least. If it were anyone else, Rave Age would be a passable, sometimes enjoyable, if not a little generic, electro house record with a slight but noticeable rave-ish energy boost. But it’s a Vitalic record so it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed. Rave Age lacks the knife’s-edge emotional drive and hungry assuredness of Vitalic’s previous pair of LPs and filler vocal-less tracks like “Stamina” and “Vigipirate” feel like Arbez simply spinning his wheels on what a Vitalic song is supposed to sound like without really investing in it.
Lead single and album centerpiece “No More Sleep” is perhaps the most obvious nod to Vitalic’s signature build-pause-explode style, but instead, with its predictable squelching synths and robot-hum bass line, it feels designed for a generic 4/4-driven eurodance DJ set momentarily in need of a little adrenaline shot rather than something that stands on its own. “Lucky Star” has a similar problem. It’s an enjoyably lush, head nod-worthy track, but other than a nicely chopped choral sample, its synth textures could’ve popped out of anyone who likes their rave with sidechain compression. “Nexus” tries to move from a krauty new age build up into something floor-oriented, but its tangle of chewy synths ends up being kind of a mess. And “March of the Skabah”‘s theremin-esque synth squall is nearly eye roll-inducing.
It’s hard to call any of this outright bad. Rave Age is completely listenable from front to back, and it never reaches the mind-numbing levels of flaccidness and facelessness of someone like Deadmau5. The album does have some standout moments. The vocals on tracks “Rave Kids Go,” “Under Your Sun,” and “La Mort Sur Le Dancefloor,” all bring an energy that befit what you might imagine Vitalic would do with a live vocalist, even if their surroundings are a little limp at times. “Under Your Sun” is reminiscent of recent Royksopp while “La Mort Sur Le Dancefloor” touches on the grimey electro punk of early Crystal Castles. There’s also techno-ish closer “The Legend of Kasper Hauser,” which belongs on a different record. The track is generally weird and atmospheric with its distant piano plunks, wah-pedaled guitar squawks, and hushed jazz breaks all riding on a phased bass throb.
Rave Age is an awkward half-step in a couple directions for Vitalic. It’s texturally half-baked and predictable. It tries to slot in some new song dynamics for the French producer, but often it catches itself repeating old tricks without fully committing. It’s more than understandable if Arbez wants to grow out of a sound he’s continually mastered, but with Rave Age he seems caught between that transition without completely occupying either side of it. The album’s ultimate failure, however, is most readily viewed through the lens of Vitalic’s entire career. With Ok Cowboy and Flashmob Vitalic proved himself to be an unrelenting, untouchable force as a producer, vital not just in name, but in every nook and cranny of his sound. On Rave Age, all that’s gone and Arbez has fallen to Earth to walk amongst mere mortals. It doesn’t suit him.