It’s hard to place alternative electronic duo Arswain in a specific musical category. Since their debut full-length album “Fortress,” their songs have spanned the stylistic spectrum from rap to ambient house to structured, drop-driven EDM. Themes of exploration and indecision are even apparent in their lyrics. On “Blame State”, a track from their latest release, “Spokesmachine,” vocalist and producer Freddy Avis sings, “I can’t explain how I want to feel.” Or, apparently, what kind of music he wants to make.
But that doesn’t mean he and his brother/musical partner, producer and percussionist Charlie Avis, aren’t creating something special. On “Spokesmachine,” a 6-track EP released early this month, Arswain is taking steps to build its musical identity, incorporating experimental and introspective elements while still engaging the listener in magnetic, well-timed melodies and rhythms. The release might not fall into a discrete category, but it is clearly moving towards an aesthetic that can’t simply be described as EDM, house, or indietronica – it’s just Arswain, and it’s indefinably good.
“Spokesmachine” opens with a brief prelude, featuring echoing guitar riffs and atmospheric vocals reminiscent of the Los Angeles alt-rock quartet Bad Suns. This bleeds seamlessly into the darker, more energetic “False Flat”, a track built around tense interludes of low, pulsing synths. Somehow, these quieter rhythmic stretches grip the listener more than an aggressive, bass-heavy drop. This song in particular showcases Arswain’s reluctance to rely on the crutch of typical EDM musical structures.
On the whole, this EP moves away from tradition, veering toward the experimental. The Avis brothers are clearly unafraid of taking risks with jagged rhythms and minimal, non-melodic stretches. Sometimes, this can render their compositions a little flat and repetitive – during the title track, “Spokesmachine”, my focus wavered and my interest waned. But more often than the not, their musical risks are intriguing, even captivating. “Pitesti,” the second-to-last track, featured rich, intense bursts of synthesized sound, unexpected but perfectly timed. And the instrumental “Dysphasia” was an unlikely standout, anchored by a tender, cascading guitar riff that was one of the most melodically engaging moments on the album. The EP is filled with twists and turns like these – bold musical decisions that work better than one might expect.
But introspective, slightly melancholic vocals remain the centerpiece throughout “Spokesmachine,” revealing Freddy’s development as a singer. His voice, which is smooth, rich, and a little haunting, emerges throughout the EP as one of its core strengths. Avis also explores new lyrical and thematic territory, especially in the title track. Against a sparse musical backdrop, he asks, “How can you encode yourself/to behave like someone else?” To the attuned listener, it seems as if he’s questioning the life outcomes that fledgling adults – including many here at Stanford – blindly chase. He sings of “drilling the commercial well” and “professional extremes of wealth,” all the while warning against the “kind hell” of depersonalized success. Just like the duo’s exploratory, unconventional production, these themes push us to listen deeply, to consider what we’re hearing and what we’re taking away from it. “Spokesmachine” is not just music to dance to, and I have a feeling that’s exactly how the Avis brothers intended it.
In sum, though lead singer Freddy Avis explores lyrical themes of conformity and personal restlessness, “Spokesmachine” is a distinct step forward on Arswain’s journey to self-definition. The duo seems faithful to its unique artistic vision, wary of drawing too deep from the commercial well. Sometimes, their insistence on minimalism and idiosyncracy results in missteps, but this EP is made up largely of moments that surprise and impress. The brothers behind Arswain might not know exactly who they are, but it’s a pleasure to listen as they figure it out.
Contact Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’ stanford.edu.