Rooftop Runners – We Are Here EP

Rooftop Runners - We Are Here EP

Often, I am skeptical about bands that make a point of branding themselves with a specific scene in their press material. As Bruce Springsteen so cogently addressed in his SXSW keynote last month, we’ve now arrived at a point of such extreme cross-pollination in music that Nintendocore is now considered a viable qualifier of style. From art punk and lo-fi to chillwave and screamo, the list of vague descriptors that critics and PR reps rely on to categorize new bands feels more and more perfunctory by the day.

Enter Berlin-based sibling act Rooftop Runners. Benedikt and Tobias MacIsaac fancy themselves purveyors of “trip-pop,” which is about as informative a lemma to the musical novice as trip-hop was when Massive Attack dropped Blues Lines back in 1991. Yet, if for the sake of argument, we go with the widely agreed upon notion that trip-hop was an electronically-based genre that fused downtempo grooves with doses of funk and R&B, one would assume that trip-pop would eschew the murky atmospheres of groups like Massive Attack and Portishead, and instead shine a light on the melodic content that gives pop music its obvious mainstream potency. After listening to Rooftop Runners’ We Are Here EP, there’s some pretty blunt testimony to the contrary. It’s not that what’s presented here is lacking in conviction- in fact, it’s fairly enterprising – a zesty mélange of James Blake-indebted vocals, subterranean bass, and sparse percussion. Honestly though, the idea of this harrowing microcosm of electronica being tagged as pop is entirely misleading. If anything, We Are Here would be a fine companion to the movie adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, where a gritty dystopia and steely atmospheres are the norm.

I’m getting carried away with semantics, however. Pop or otherwise, the music of Rooftop Runners commands attention. “Streets” is a devastating way to kick things off, with warbling synths and the guttural thrum of the bass standing in stark opposition to the minimalist drums and crooned vocals. Though it’s never made clear which of the brothers assumes the role of frontman, the singing is a formidable presence throughout, mixed in such as a way as to bolster an already very capable set of pipes.

From here, the M.O. only varies slightly.  “Energize” finds the singing veering more toward histrionic camp (“Welcome to the wild side, honey”), à la the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There’s a propulsive energy presence in the four-to-the-floor drums and agitated bass line that hints at ascendancy, but the song never fully achieves emotional liftoff. “Bang Bang” begins with a tentative acoustic guitar figure that unexpectedly morphs into a stuttering synth groove, recalling Depeche Mode during the late 90s. There’s not really a strong hook or palpable structure to latch onto, but the unorthodox pairing of pulsating electronic textures and boorish lyrics (“You think you’re sleeping with the wrong ones / you think you’re sleeping with the wrong guns”) is oddly captivating. Though indisputably awkward and clichéd with its “woman-as-evil-temptress” angle, “She Devil” is a noteworthy track for its ability to extract gravitas out of just a single drum loop and discordant guitar chords.

According to the aforementioned press materials, the MacIssac brothers have a full length release planned for later this year. Though their chosen palette works wondrously within the context of this EP, it’ll be intriguing to see how much development the sound of Rooftop Runners undergoes when not confined to such short lengths. Hopefully, an LP will also brandish more compelling evidence for the reasons behind their adopted trip-pop tag.