Supergroups are almost always doomed to fail, since the listeners who are enthusiastic about all parts of a given collective arrive freighted with expectations that are so compounded that they’re practically guaranteed to shatter on impact. This rule is especially germane in the case of SuperMayer’s Save the World, a collaboration between Kompakt Records label don Michael Mayer and his fellow minimal techno superstar Superpitcher (née Aksel Schaufler), since the duo spends half the time playing around with its audience’s expectations and the other half disregarding them completely. Anyone expecting an album’s worth of patented Mayer and Superpitcher peak-time euphoria, epic gliding melodies and three-a.m. clicky-stomp is out of luck. That the duo have thrown such a curveball probably qualifies the record as a disappointment all by itself, but the real bummer is that adventurous dance music fans willing to give SuperMayer the benefit of the doubt will still be disappointed more than half of the time.
In interviews, Mayer has spoken about how Save the World is a product of the fact that Kompakt, the groundbreaking German minimal label, finally built a studio. Apparently the collaborations that resulted with this record began when he and Schaufler were taking full advantage of their first chance to play around in their own studio, and the album certainly sounds like it. Full of wide-eyed, immaculate production (even the most pedestrian tracks feature layers of intricately arranged breaths and voices, the drums all snap, crack, and pop, and there’s a lot more brassy, full-band instrumentation than you might expect), it’s also wide-ranging in a scattershot, unfocused way. Its conceptual sprawl is exciting and superficially interesting, but also frequently frustrating, since it means that the record never coheres. Listening to all the tracks in sequence is like being invited to an identity crisis.
Album centerpiece “The Lonesome King,” the most poignant example of said crisis, is also one of the more bizarre things you’re ever likely to hear on a techno record. It’s the sort of song that probably feels most at home strummed softly on a mandolin, though here it features saxophone, french horns, and a cooing vocal describing the titular king, whose “troubles were his only friends.” It’s a fantastic joke played several shades too straight—the lonely kings of thumpity-thumpity taking the piss. On one hand, you have to admire SuperMayer for taking serious risks to expand their artistic purview; the song is pretty gorgeous on its own merits. On the other, when your friend drags you to an abandoned field with promises of a rave but surprises you with a Renaissance Fair, it’s only natural to feel a little bit baited and switched. Even if it’s the awesomest Renaissance Fair ever.
Other forays into uncharted territory are less easily caricatured and more successful, even if they, too, make sport of expectation. Album-opener “The Art of Letting Go” skronks along on a ska riff, a studiously restrained bassline, smatterings of cowbell, and casually taunting—or is it chiding?—vocal repetition of the title. The whole affair is punctuated at times with a fuzzy scrim of synthesizer, teasingly suggesting that the track itself is about to let go, transforming from a LCD Soundsystem-esque funk workout into a gliding dance track. Since it never does, perhaps the title is more instruction about expectations than evocation of hedonistic bliss. Guess that’s their prerogative. “Us and Them” is the most endearing oddball, a mid-tempo spacey disco burner that leads a spooky melody through a minefield of muzak pads and buzzy analog synth. It’s very far way from either man’s previously established comfort zone, but it’s still a sweet spot.
Unfortunately, SuperMayer only really seem interested in pushing the boundaries by interpreting forms previously foreign to them. When they’re working with structures that are more familiar, their approach is scandalously rote. With the bare exception of the stern, grinding (and still a little boring) “Saturndays,” the dance floor moments on Save the World fall flat. “Please Sunrise” is grimly rehashed Ibiza house studded with narcoleptic piano and tired-sounding washes of melody that’s about a half step removed from elevator jams and smooth jazz. And while “Planet of the Sick” is at least paced like it’s trying, the duo adds precisely nothing to a brand of filter disco that’s half a decade past its expiration date.
“Two of Us” is the ostensible dance floor monster here, at least in places where they play minimal techno to dancing people. But it’s still no great shakes, with a groove lifted from Marc Houle’s remix of Troy Pierce’s “25 Bitches” and formulaically punctuated with interminable, momentum-crushing chimes that never really crescendo. It’s clearly meant for big rooms, and in capable hands it probably destroys them. But it comes across as utilitarian, overpowering, and out of place on this baroque, difficult album. Its inclusion (in an over-long extended album version that loses all of its propulsion at the end) only makes commercial, not aesthetic, sense. In a way, you have to admire the fact that the big-room single sticks out so much, since Save the World could probably have gone down a less challenging, more crowd-pleasing path. Dance music has a bad tendency toward parochialism and generic regimentality, so in a practical sense, it’s a great thing that this trend-setting duo are capable of disregarding what’s expected of them so blithely. Sadly, in this case their bravery has resulted in an album that’s rambling, inconsistent, and slack.