Some bands pick up on the most pleasurable parts of their influences and simply run with them. Milwaukee’s Signaldrift has existed since 1998, but was the solo project of Franz Buchholtz until 2005, when he was joined by John Goelzer. Their new album, Two Agents, has an unfashionably optimistic sound for a contemporary electronic record. Combining Chicago post-rock, the propulsive side of krautrock, and warm synths across two stylistically diverse LPs, Signaldrift have made a record that’s difficult to really love, but almost impossible to dislike. When all is for the best in the best of all possible electronic worlds, sometimes the music’s intrigue suffers; the album is a pleasure, even if listening to it occasionally feels optional.
Musical references change from track to track, but the results can end up more functional than immersive, along the lines of Prins Thomas’ Full Pupp label. One of the highlights from a strong first half, "Planetarium" opens with the expected spacey bleeps but gradually builds into a laidback baggy groove decorated with fizzy ambient techno pads. The next track, "Tense Situations," is a good example of Two Agents‘ cosmic disco side, where strutting kraut drums, looming e-bow guitar riffs, and strangely pitched pings add up to a pastoral kind of almost-dance music. Post-rock resonates throughout the album in its preference for mood over drama, and in the way Buchholtz and Goelzer’s workmanlike musical competence avoids virtuosity.
The album breaks new ground with its longest track, "Go On Without Me." So-called hypnagogic pop revolves around the idea that the music evokes a state between wakefulness and sleep; "Go On Without Me," on the other hand, evokes the dead zone between nostalgia and irony. The song feels like a collage whose theme is troublesome to describe but easy to perceive and feel. It’s like something belonging more to visual culture than music. There are indeed many image-compiling Tumblrs, like Camille Paloque-Berges’, that use ephemera to establish a knowingly obsolete aesthetic that is nonetheless moving because it is about time and how it passes. It calls up Raymond Williams’ term, "structures of feeling," which refers to the lived experience of culture at a given time and place. Many of us would get a better sense of what it felt like to be alive in 1993 from an infomercial than from a newspaper, and "Go On Without Me" hits some of these nerve centers. The song could be the soundtrack to a video introducing the CD-ROM, help sell crystals on a TV shopping network, or be the hold music for Cyan Worlds.
Compared to the music itself, however, such examples sound exaggerated — the kinds of experience "Go On Without Me" touches on are some of our least tangible, and Signaldrift isn’t interested in the goofy or cynical aspect of "Remember when?" The rest of the music on Two Agents might not always inspire the listener to dive in or inspire grappling with memory, but its clear sense of purpose and well-articulated taste make the whole album satisfying to listen to. Although the tissue between hobbyist and career musicians is now so thin it’s nearly invisible, Signaldrift is a product of loving records. Happy, pumped, thoughtful — these two make nice music.