Darkel – Darkel


Jean-Benoit Dunckel, half of the atmospherically electronic French duo Air, goes it alone on an album that walks (well, more like dances) directly in the massive shadow of Air. The soundscapes here are tighter, more direct, and crafted into poppy dance and dream numbers that are still full of the strange, spacey sounds and breathy, hushed, on-Xanax vocals that make Air so distinctive. Darkel unfortunately suffers from simplicus repetitis – almost every song is worn down to an extremely simplistic and repetitive musical and lyrics groove.

JB’s vocals sound androgynous and warmly mechanized – you can’t tell if it’s a guy or a girl breathing into the mic. The production and treatment of his voice make it sound like there is a soft halo around every well-enunciated, yet unemotional, syllable. The impression is of a machine trying to approximate the tones of the human voice. This stylistic distance, however, limits the scope of emotions conveyed and makes it difficult for the listener to fully escape into the music.

The first half of the album is more varied and interesting than the second half, with the opener “Be My Friend” sounding like a carbon copy of a Walkie Talkie-era Air song. There are compelling runs of piano notes, deep space quasar squelchy noises, and a ticking clock-type sound in the background as JB intones “Be my friend until the end of time.”.

“At The End of the Sky” is mid-tempo song filled with wavering, underwater-sounding piano notes, soft, steady beats, and JB singing more directly and in a higher, hopeful tone. The next tune, “TV Destroy”, delves into Japanese pop-rock with a faster tempo and a looped sample of a girl sighing in pleasure. JB himself sounds more feminine and there’s even a whacked-out harmonica break (on synth, natch) mid-way through the rockier number.

The pace slows down with “Some Men”, a contemplative piano ballad that also features strings and welcomingly treads on Air territory again. The bright piano lines follow JB’s low-key vocals and near the end of the song, a new-day dawning synth sound picks it up out of navel-gazing introspection.

“My Own Sun” is the highlight of the album – a jaunty affair, with upbeat rhythm, handclaps, and old-time piano. The lyrics are the most complex of the album (just barely), with JB singing “It’s our world, a place we all belong. It’s not mine, I’m on borrowed time.”

By the middle of the album, however, the brakes are applied and most of the tunes sound the same – slower with manipulated vocals, piano, contained beats, and ghostly backdrops of sound. “Pearl” is another slow one with a tolling-bell beat, steady piano notes, and twangy coil sounds, with JB singing lightly and in a higher range.

The repetition of the lyrics throughout the album really start to sink in by “Earth” as JB repeats the short lyric line “We belong to the earth… doesn’t belong to us” in a slightly nasal, cooler tone against percolating synth notes deep in the background and slowly drawn out melancholy synth lines and an otherworldly wordless chorale in the foreground.

“Beautiful Woman” mixes it up a little as an up-tempo, poppier number with manipulated vocals and looping tape noises, but the song eventually falls into a rut with no highs or lows – just the repetitive lyrics “You, beautiful woman, I love you like a fool. You, crazy young woman, will you turn me on”. That type of lyric gets old really fast.

Next comes the ‘serious song’, “How Brave You Are”, with synth piano notes and airy sounds -but JB’s lower-register vocals still have that slightly warped tone, like one of the Chipmunks but slower and at a lower pitch, which totally negates the serious tone of the song and lyrics like “Don’t cry for me my son, show me how brave you are. Your day has just begun…my day is done.”.

The instrumental closer “Bathroom Spirit” is a snoozer – too mellow for its own good. It just drags on with a slow, Casio recorder maraca-shaking beat, humming, minor chords, some Space Invader bleeps, tinkling piano notes, and a couple of zooming noises to break up the monotony.

The lack of complexity, tension, and propulsion in most of these songs is a big disappointment because the soundscapes are not grand and glorious enough to overcome the simplistic musical lines and repetitive nature of the lyrics. The one constant of Darkel is JB’s slightly distorted, helium-warped vocals which either warm you up or leave you cold.