Champaign-Urbana electronic duo Boycut released their debut EP Alien via Ghost Track today.
Singer-songwriters Joe Meland (Feral States) and Emily Otnes (Tara Terra) began working on the electronic project in September 2014, individually releasing early versions of four of the five tracks on Alien online over the past nine months.
On Alien, Meland and Otnes depart from their roots and explore new textures and techniques, delivering a five-song EP that serves as a satisfying navigation into the unknown for both Boycut and the CU music scene.
You can listen to Alien in full here:
Outside of the rap scene, CU has a lack of depth in music programming. This isn’t to say Alien is groundbreaking – that would be an extreme exaggeration – but locally, the album helps open doors for more projects like it to follow in its footsteps. While it’s unmarked territory for those in CU’s rock scene, the sound Boycut feels out on their debut EP has long been pioneered and long before mastered around the rest of the world, whether it’s the immediate and logical comparison to Chvrches (the orchestrated vocal sample that creates the primary melody in Boycut’s “Fire” is quickly reminiscent of the similar style used by Chvrches on their hit “The Mother We Share”) or Otnes’ cast-and-reel vocal styling on “Wave” that has long notes held out in the choruses while a fast-paced, galloping melody underlies or quickly contrasts it, utilized by major-label pop bands like Haim.
But songs like “Alien,” the album’s title track, flourish with a unique sound drenched in promise and creativity. Meland’s song structure creates an eerie, almost frightening atmosphere as he layers dystopian sound effects over the top of whispered chants before the keyboard is unleashed and glides into a polished riff in the chorus that rivals any melody in the CU music scene over the past few years. Its only recent competition comes just seconds later when Otnes’ vocal melody develops into what could arguably be the best-written vocal hook of her young music career as her voice begins to multiply over the questioning line, “Are you light reflecting?”
The main difference to understand when thinking of Boycut as an electronic band is the use of percussion. Meland’s songwriting remains distinct as he doesn’t allow for the tracks to become dependent on beats. Instead, Boycut is atmospheric. The percussion, when integrated in the songs, is rarely louder than any other instrumental sound on the EP – if it’s blatant and noticeable at all. When its use is apparent (“Fragment”), the rhythm is constantly changing, never allowing the listener any expectations as the song develops and keeping their ears focused on what’s coming around the corner throughout the release.
As Alien unfolds, there’s quite a few expectations Boycut successfully defies in the 23 minutes given. It’s easy to expect this project to be a glorified podium for Emily Otnes’ vocals. It’s not. If anything, Otnes’ vocal contribution takes a backseat to the crafty song structure and well-orchestrated programming done on Alien. And when the vocals do take center stage, they do so responsibly and with discipline. “Wave” is the only track molded around the vocal melody, but it’s a song that needs to. The happy-go-lucky pop track doesn’t share the same experimental tone the rest of Alien does, requiring the melody to step up and lead the way. Meland and Otnes showing maturity in knowing when to pull in the reigns and not to overdo what they do best isn’t necessarily surprising given their now veteran-length discographies, but it’s still satisfying to discover as the EP goes along.
Outside the vocal expectations, and probably what will be the most common misconception leading into Alien‘s release is that it’s also easy to go into Boycut’s debut expecting it to be an unpolished rehash of what we’ve come to expect out of electronic indie groups. There’s the dude with sunglasses behind the keyboards and computers moving around like he’s in a bad remake of A Night At the Roxbury. There’s the frontwoman in sequence and semi-tribal face paint filing the empty space created by the two of them with the vocals they’ve drenched in reverb. It’s a bad trope that overwhelmingly produces more flops than successes every time it’s played out. Then you have Boycut, the rare case of a duo that could understandably be expected to crash right into the sign staring back at them as they began to release single after single on Soundcloud in late 2014. It read, “STOP. WE KNOW WHAT’S NEXT.” But now is the part for admission: We didn’t know what was next. Boycut turned out of the way at the last minute, avoiding the never-ending pileup of wannabe projects that lay in a cloud of smoke which reeks of worn out Grimes and Purity Ring records, and uses the electronic template as a promising pivot point that highlights songwriting first and production second.