Album Review: Freak Heat Waves – Zap The Planet

[Telephone Explosion; 2020]

Freak Heat Waves are Steven Lind and Thomas Di Ninno, two musical visitors from a distant and exotic land. Upon hearing their fourth album Zap The Planet, it may come as a surprise to discover that the land in question is not a far-off galaxy but rural Canada. The duo were transported from a small town there over 10 years ago and have built their way to this intriguing moment. Zap The Planet is their second album for the excellent label Telephone Explosion (Deliluh, New Fries) and continues the evolution of their style. Gone is the colder post-punk that they wielded similarly to peers like Preoccupations and in its place is a dense and melting layer of otherworldly electronica.

And otherworldly is the correct word for it. The electronic effects and spacy textures are almost alien-like. To listen to Zap The Planet is to imagine oneself in a dingy basement bar on Mars, a tiny supplantation of a former earthly existence, an attempt to make one feel at home in new celestial surroundings, but the place is warped and strange and disorientating.

A large contributor to this aesthetic is the alarming vocal delivery of Lind which is – somehow – simultaneously the highlight of the album and its weakest link. He possesses the drawled insouciance of an Alan Vega and there can be few more abstruse singers in music currently than he. On “Busted”, he sultrily mutters “give in”, except every syllable is maximised: “give in” therefore becomes “giiiiiive in”, a downright menacing elongation.

One song later, “I’m Zapped” sees him intone, “It’s messing with my head / Zapped on my mattress,” preempting the fate of his listener. This is the overarching effect of Zap The Planet. It leaves one feeling, not stoned and pleasantly high, but, for want of a better word, zonked: completely woozy from the weird and delirious electronica that has enveloped everything in a cloud for the last half an hour; there will be no equal for pure atmospherics in the rest of 2020, it’s fair to assume.

The synths are in a constant bind with his alluring but unsettling sleaziness. A harmless line like “I’ll try to be kind” from “In Your Realm” is turned into a weaponised threat when filtered through Lind’s creeping vocals. The lyrics are also mostly sidelined, meaning any thematic conclusions are hard to be drawn under the lethargic delivery and mind-bending beats.

A sense of sleaze extends to the instrumentation which consists of dirty analogue synths and intense samples. “Off Axis” begins the record – reminiscent of Alex G’s booming track “Salt” – with a dazzling drumbeat sounding effortlessly created before an inevitable swooping of synths arrives. “Busted” skews towards harder techno, its zapping sounds transmitting a sense of agitation and exhaustion. The intoxicating groove of “Dripping Visions” places the lazy delivery of Lind under eerie sirens, an apocalyptic signal. Much of Zap The Planet, particularly the opening half, evokes a mix of vaporwave and darkwave without the bleak lyricism of the latter.

The second half of the record is a decidedly lighter affair. “Something Fresh” boasts the straightest melody, a glitchy pop piece that positively vibrates under its many synths. “Let It Go” is then trippy and breezy, interjected with intricate percussive moments.

A delicate tension hangs over the record. It’s frequently foreboding and ominous, as if it’s building to something momentous, a juncture when the veil will be lifted. Instead, Freak Heat Waves give us “Nothing Lasts Forever”: this is the warmest song of the whole, Lind’s vocal mitigated to radiate a sense of contentment. “Let’s give it up,” he declares towards the end of the pleasant and gentle melody; “Nothing Lasts Forever” indeed.

Zap The Planet is decidedly bold, commendably so. When its final note ends, it can feel like arriving back on Earth, descended and discombobulated. Based on their current trajectory, Freak Heat Waves should be able to transport their listeners deeper into another sonic interplanetary space on their fifth album.