Mainstream pop music has always had a mercurial quality, endlessly absorbing and reshaping itself around sounds that have echoed upwards from the underground. In the 21st century the ubiquitous two-verse-and-a-chorus structure has become increasingly irrelevant, with experimental artists like the late SOPHIE blowing apart traditional notions of structure and instrumentation. Indeed, for anyone looking for a master class in this left-field approach to pop song writing, SOPHIE’s collaborations with Charli XCX are a raucous collision of bubble gum sheen and visceral electronic pulsations.
This philosophy has clearly influenced the new release from Berlin based IDM/Experimental imprint INDEX:Records. Conceived during lockdown in the label’s basement studio, Downstairs People is a collaborative project between several local vocalists and musicians with producer Jorge Camacho at the centre.
Previously appearing on the label under his alias vase, Camacho’s productions sit at the centre of the project, utilising his mastery of enigmatic and robotic textures to mould 11 slices of decidedly left-field pop that confidently sits apart from the body of INDEX’s back catalogue while maintaining the experimental ethos at the heart of the label.
Spinning together Synth-Pop, Neo-Rnb, Hip Hop and House, the project (appropriately titled Underground Pop), skirts around typical pop structures by slyly appropriating radio-friendly forms in some places, while entirely chewing them up in others.
Opener “Some Music” sits firmly in the former category, throwing up an unsettling, bass-heavy instrumental with a belligerent, Lord Quas style vocal that teases “democracy is dead unless a white man gets a law passed” as if heard through the swampy distortions of a Benzodiazepine high.
This approach to vocal processing reappears across the release, establishing the hazy, slightly stoned aesthetic of the project. “Gateway” washes over the listener pleasantly with its airy chords and arrangement, while its standout vocal performance perfectly demonstrates the contrasting ideals at the heart of the record. “On The Phone” takes a similarly off-kilter approach to RnB, establishing it’s chorus over trippy backing vocals that flicker in and out of the listener’s periphery.
“Slow It” is another high-point, a pastiche of new-romantic synth-pop that turns up the sleaze while bringing down the tempo to a slightly menacing chug that brings to mind new-beat darlings Boy Harsher at their most melodic. Rounding off the album, instrumental “Tell Me Your Name” is a perfectly developed slice of Detroit house that charms the listener with its breathy vocal and sultry sax accompaniment.
Overall Underground Pop is an intriguing and ambitious project that delivers some moments of truly inspired pop music. The delivery is at times impeccable, marrying up experimental production with assured and impactful song writing to create something unique and arresting. Although a few of the tracks lack the insightful writing or efficient structure of the highlights, the standout moments deliver on the ear worm promise of true pop music and beg for repeat listens.
Releasing April 16th, Underground Pop is available to pre-order via the Index:Records Bandcamp in both digital and physical format.