The debut album of Flatline Skyline is definitely one of the biggest surprises this year, for two reasons: 1) The label releasing it is Mechanoise Labs, better known for much noisier output. 2) I can honestly say I like it a lot. This is not to say I generally have something against Mechanoise's releases, on the contrary, Horizon Grid just happens to represent a style quite far removed from what is usually found in the label's catalog, or on my record shelves for that matter.
Flatline Skyline, being a project consisting of two young Americans, is best characterised as an unlikely crossbreed of Autechre and Covenant. Rhythms composed of sharp digital noises and clanks infused with minimal drones provide a cold, but quite beautiful backdrop for emotionally charged vocals that range from the calm, softspoken voice on Bulletproof Bones to the over-the-top falsetto on the album's title song. Despite the slight naiveté of the lyrics, their tone is always honest, although sometimes in danger of turning into overemotional pomp. As a whole, the vocal tracks are probably what will be the greatest divider of opinions on Horizon Grid. If one can't stand their vaguely emoish style, then it will probably be impossible to concentrate just on the skilfully constructed backgrounds. On the other hand, as good as they are, the compositions would probably not work as well as with the attention demanding vocals. For example, the clever screeching noises of Three Winter Nights would simply lack the punch they have as underliners of the sung parts, and We Depart/Link Arms with its spastic rhythms would not be as fluid as a pure instrumental.
The general feel of the album is very poplike, even though the choice of instruments and sounds leans heavily into IDM and glitch. The captivating minimal buzzes, whines and pops are ever present, even though the tracks range in style and tempo from the balladlike ambient of 98 Tiny Reflections through the trip hoppy Math Grenades to the distorted thumping of Riots in the Bloodstream. Against all expectations, this stylistical hodgepodge never gets out of hand, and every last detail of every track is executed with meticulous precision and excellent sense of finesse.
Releasing Horizon Grid is a very daring move from Mechanoise Labs, but also one that is definitely worth making. Wholly another thing is will the album find a receptive audience among the regular Mechanoise shoppers. I hope it will, because Flatline Skyline is definitely one of this year's most original newcomers. The best way to get to know if the band's synthpop-IDM fusion appeals is to try, and missing it altogether would be a much greater loss. Only non-compromising industrial puritans need not apply.