Though they first formed in 1997, Vancouver trio Guitaro didn’t put out their first full-length studio album, Futura Black, until 2002, and they didn’t get around to releasing their proper sophomore effort, JJ’s Crystal Palace, until last fall. Now receiving a wider North American release, it’s an album that was certainly worth the wait. With a set of influences that are clearly informed by, but not limited to, the shoegaze of the late 1990s and early aughts, JJ’s Crystal Palace boasts an impressive sonic palette and truly progressive style that draws from the best of modern pop and dance, and it’s an early standout in what has been a pretty dismal year for music so far.
With its steely, electronic atmospherics and propulsive 4/4 stomp, “Modulo” recalls many of Kleerup’s best collaborations, while the monotone percussion effect that opens “Hill Mountain” sounds like an updated version of Timbaland’s trademark minimalism. What Guitaro does incredibly well over the course of JJ’s Crystal Palace is use those relatively simple rhythmic structures as the foundations for soundscapes that are deceptively complex. “Hill Mountain” starts off at a simmer of skuzzy, distorted electric guitar chords and high-pitched synth figures before coming to a full boil of handclaps, bass, and drum-machine beats. Bassist Jeremy Unrau does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the album’s rhythm sections, with multi-instrumentalists Heather Warkentin and Mark Wiebe creating the dense layers of sound on tracks like “Chateau 100” and “Come Get Sums.”
Even the songs that skew more heavily toward the band’s shoegaze roots still defer to the album’s overall aesthetic of forward-thinking dance. “Blastok” is effectively mopey, with lines like “Why can’t people just let things be?” stretched languidly across multiple bars, but it still boasts a midtempo dance beat, as does the piano-driven “2085,” which speaks of endless days and nights that run into a feverish blur. What makes the album work as well as it does is that Guitaro, even at their most dismal, still writes engaging melodies, and the tension between their hummable pop and bummer POV is only heightened by their aloof brand of space noise.
That none of their songs, save the spare, acoustic ballad “Make You,” overstay their welcome also works in the album’s favor. Wiebe’s vocals—which are performed with a deliberate lack of affect, are complemented by occasional multi-tracking and some intricate harmonies from Warkenten—add to the chilly, detached style. Guitaro may lack Robyn’s intimate humanity, M83’s twitchy tech paranoia, or the Knife’s macabre fascinations, but their melancholy perspective works well in the context of modern dance music and makes JJ’s Crystal Palace a captivating record.