HTRK’s Ghostly International debut Work (work, work) is a flat-lined study of desire and submission, sentimentality and dysphoria. The London by way of Berlin and Melbourne art-rock duo (pronounced “Hate Rock”) finished the album’s production while grieving the sudden loss of founding member and bassist Sean Stewart to suicide in March ‘10. And while that tragedy has certainly found its way into the music’s bottomless sonic void, Work (work, work), written from 2006-10 in Berlin and London, is about much more than abject darkness. Much, much more.
On Work (work, work), HTRK craft a stark soundscape: achingly slow 808 beats, eerie synth arpeggios, vaporous guitar noise, and Jonnine Standish’s androgynous, detached vocals, dripping with reverb. And yet it’s the careful way the pair combine those elements—organizing and juxtaposing them with a minimalist’s attention to detail—that makes their music so emotionally devastating. “Ice Eyes Eis” starts things off by enveloping you in a slippery erotic zone, in which a German sex TV babe splays herself over a molasses-slow beat and clouds of dry-ice atmosphere. The creeping “Eat Yr Heart” embodies HTRK’s touch with sonic unease, showcasing a high-pitched horror-movie synth obligato that flits like a swarm of bats around Standish’s declarations of longing (“glucose, cellulose, saccharine”/ “you fill me up then make me starve, eat yr heart”). Late-album highlight “Love Triangle” takes a more sensuous tone, describing a perfect three-person encounter (“he on she on me / she on me on he / bermuda bermuda bermuda”) over textured guitar swirls and a languorous drum-machine march.
For all of Work (work, work)’s more abrasive elements, its sense of bleakness and mourning, one finds a surprisingly romantic core. A sense of doomed melancholy, a heavy heart, lives below the layers of a murky and heavy space. HTRK’s remaining members, Jonnine Standish and guitarist Nigel Yang, sweeten their heavier sonic reference points (Pan Sonic, Suicide, et al) into songs of love and lust, creating an imaginary party record for the end of time. And what of all that “work”? In the end, HTRK’s album title seems both to refer to the tireless craft that went into its creation, as well as Standish and Yang’s endless quest to extract beauty from melancholy.