Gui Boratto gives techno a tender '80s crush

German label Kompakt tends to release what nonfans call "IKEA techno" — pleasant, faceless music that's sort of ambient, sort of danceable, but never too demanding of your attention. Gui Boratto's second album, 2007's Chromophobia, was his first for the label, and seemed a subtle rebuke to the Kompakt "house style." The rhythms are less mechanistic and more supple, with elements like postpunk guitars and upper-register basslines unexpectedly bubbling to the surface. "I'm first concerned about harmonies and melodies and their relations," says the Brazilian native. He adds that you can play most of his songs with noncomputerized instruments: "You can't play most techno tracks on a piano, because most of them don't have melodies."

Hooks are a crucial component of Boratto's latest album, Take My Breath Away. Sometimes he even writes traditional songs, though they aren't really about anything. He describes his lyrics as "easy and naive," and admits to having "much more intimacy" when creating instrumental tracks. "No Turning Back," which features vocals by his wife, Luciana Villanova, could almost be a pop hit if it were just a little less weird. The song combines a melodic bassline with a big, fuzzed-out synth line indebted to 1970s electropunk duo Suicide, while the filter effect on Villanova's voice is reminiscent of Daft Punk.

Gui Boratto inspires dancefloor swooning.
Philippe Levy
Gui Boratto inspires dancefloor swooning.

Any message Boratto is attempting to impart remains vague, which makes Take My Breath Away's cover art somewhat distressing. It depicts a group of children in long, safety-orange T-shirts and gas masks in a field of computer-generated flowers. Boratto claims the image is meant to point out the "social and economic problems the world is passing through. The gas mask criticizes the apparently beautiful, but fake and plastic flowers around the kids." But this has absolutely no connection to the music, which is all about life and joy. If this is preaching, it feels tacked-on and perfunctory.

Fortunately, the cover art is the only thing about the album that feels forced. Boratto's songs have techno's repetitive structure and an airiness common to Brazilian music, electronic or otherwise. They also offer crescendos and catharsis like the best pop anthems of the '80s did. Indeed, for listeners perhaps too old to hit the clubs, part of Boratto's attraction comes from the classicist — not to say retro — styles he employs. His keyboard sounds are often reminiscent of David Bowie's Berlin-era work with Brian Eno, while other elements, like the upper-register basslines that pop up on "Besides" and "No Turning Back," seem clearly inspired by New Order. "Colors" has strong hints of Pet Shop Boys, while "Les Enfants" brings in a drum machine that's almost a tribute to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight."

To Boratto, though, his sound is a combination of homage and the limits of technology. He says that while he listens to many '80s icons — Echo and the Bunnymen, Bauhaus, and Depeche Mode — he isn't as reliant on the synths those artists incorporated. "My main instrument is guitar," he says.

Fans attending one of Boratto's shows shouldn't expect to see him whipping out the ax onstage, however. This isn't some mid-'90s Moby gig. "My live performance is very simple," he says. "I use some controllers, a step sequencer, and a laptop. But I can do lots of variations with that. I program patterns on the fly, and play with the different parts as well." The Gui Boratto live experience, then, is more likely to inspire swooning dancefloor ecstasy than the moody, Dieter-from-Sprockets aura possessing so many of his labelmates.

 
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