Graded on a Curve:
Ekko the Strange,
Mystique

Mystique is the second full-length from Ekko the Strange, a coldwave/ post-punk/ goth-adoring gentleman currently based in Warsaw, Poland, but with roots spanning to the Pacific Northwest of the USA; that’s Idaho, specifically. Across eight tracks, the impact of Joy Division, Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and the general thrust of dystopian New Wave of the late ’70s-early ’80s becomes increasingly apparent. While the record isn’t breaking any new ground, the familiarity avoids the predictable as the infusion of atmosphere largely eschews the overwrought. The record is out April 15 on vinyl and digital through HIFI Mantra Records.

Not to spoil the uh, mystique, but in his Idaho days, Mr. Ekko the Strange answered to Christopher Bock and was the chief songwriter in Revolt Revolt, a band active from 2009-’15. Revolt Revolt recorded three CDs during that stretch, the last being Wild Unraveling, which featured guest guitar from Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch and Hammond organ and piano from Todd Dunnigan, formerly of Built to Spill and Caustic Resin, with Dunnigan also mixing the record.

Dunnigan also helped mix Mystique, so the ties to Idaho haven’t been severed (Ekko the Strange played Boise on April 13 to open a short West Coast tour). In fact, this transformation to Ekko apparently began in Idaho prior to traveling through 30 countries and settling in the Praga District of Warsaw. Debut Ekko the Strange album Haunting Me came out in 2020 on HIFI Mantra, as did a series of four 7-inch singles (all album tracks with the exception of one B-side).

Recorded last year in Warsaw, Mystique opens with “Exotic,” the cut stuffed full with tribal thump and thwack, reverberating synth/ keyboard ominousness, and appropriately enough deep, foreboding vocals. In a less restrained scenario, this last aspect might’ve spilled all over the song like a shroud, but happily, there is as much attention paid to the placement of the vocals in the mix (lots of echo and movement) as there is to a cultivating a menacing air.

A little range also works in Mystique’s favor, as “Głęboki” is dancy in a manner recalling New Order (namely the guitar), but with a retention of the dark mood. “Vamps” retains the dancy elements (but less New Order-like this time out) and alternates them with stretches of immersive ethereal futurist ambiance. From there, “Channel” is rhythmic and one could certainly dance to it, but that’s not really its modus operandi. Instead, it enters chilly post-punk territory, and notably without vocals.

“Reanimate” opens side two in a similar place, but with singing, or better said, guttural enunciating, a prominent part of the equation. It all ends rather abruptly. Next is “The Concept,” which spreads out instrumentally in its back half to a positive result. It’s “Your Shadow” that finds Mr. Ekko (Mr. Strange?) really upping his vocal presence, with the track offering shades of Giorgio Moroder if he cut a record for Tony Wilson circa 1980 in a Transylvanian castle with a singer who fancied himself a vampire (this image enhanced by the faux cathedral organ textures).

If that sounds like it risks the ridiculous, well, bingo. But Ekko the Strange pulls it off by consistently keeping those ingredients in fine balance, and by not allowing his voice to dominate the proceedings; closer “Ekko Reflektor” is yet another track lacking in vocal presence, which is just fine, as a truckload of buzzsaw-like distortion and incessant synth throb is in its place. Altogether, Mystique satisfies by managing to feel fresh and without straining to come up with something new.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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