Restrained isn't a word typically applicable to Architecture in Helsinki. The group has taken quite the opposite approach for most of its career, turning out colorful, sprightly indie pop that's more likely to go all in than hold back. This was intentional: Asked in an interview with the website Cokemachineglow how many instruments were used on 2005's In Case We Die, singer-guitarist Cameron Bird put the figure at “maybe 20, 30. I'm only guessing.” The band used standard rock equipment plus congas, trombone, violin, glockenspiel, tuba, xylophone, recorder, synthesizers, and, it sometimes seemed, whatever else its members could grab. But even with all this gear, Architecture in Helsinki avoided sonic clusterfucks. A sweet melody at the center of each song is crucial; the tunes are enhanced by that “Sure, all your friends and their instruments can come and play, too” free-spiritedness.
This music is not, however, “restrained.” This is what makes Bird discussing the “restrained minimalism” of “That Beep” — a 2008 single that preceded new album Moment Bends — kind of a head-scratcher. But only until you listen to the track and realize the accuracy of his statement. The synth-pop number, which features Kellie Sutherland crooning classically abstract and brilliant lyrics like “Dressed up as bubblegum/I'm stuck to your shoe/Let's run,” is sumptuous and slinky. The band actually managed to strip things down — evolution through devolution.
“When we made that song, it was a studio exercise for us at the start,” says Bird about “That Beep,” speaking from the band's hometown of Melbourne, Australia. “We wanted to try and do an Architecture version of a tightly honed, finely tuned pop song, which we'd never really thought about before. We wanted it to be lean and mean and have nothing that didn't need to be there, whereas in the past, we'd always had this approach of just chucking stuff on a track until we couldn't possibly fit anything else.”
This slimmed-down, electro-slanted approach heavily shapes Moment Bends, the band's fourth full-length and its first since 2007's Places Like This. Working out of a studio built above a Thai restaurant in Melbourne, the band members comfortably devoted two years to the album. Though there were roadblocks in the process, like “creative sabbaticals” and a week spent getting one particular bassline just right, Bird says they worked on the record intensely, even attempting a nine-to-five approach for a while. “It was more about being more focused and less rambunctious,” he says. Out went the “kitchen sink” aesthetic and the brass sections. A cavalcade of synthesizers was given high priority — including some that were around 4 decades old.
The results are varied and fascinating. “Contact High,” the album's other big song, is seriously hooky, with Bird singing in a pensive falsetto. It wants to be the radio hit that reels in the teenaged masses who heard it between Passion Pit and Phoenix. Other tracks are more akin to Scissor Sisters, or new wave mainstays like Erasure or the Human League. Nearly everywhere, Architecture in Helsinki throws itself into its new guises, employing plenty of springy electronic melodies and vocal effects. “That Beep” and “YR Go To” are both exceptionally strong. There are some missteps, however: “I Know Deep Down” gets dangerously close to being too grandiose for its own good, and Bird's overly breathy singing in “B4 3D” resembles MADtv's Stuart taking the piss out of '80s hits. Bird is capable of far better.
In discussing Moment Bends, Bird praises the album effusively — even by the standards of an artist doing press rounds for a new album. He speaks of its “depth of character,” and says that Architecture in Helsinki attempted to capture “the essence of our band or whatever” with it. “We made something that we can really be proud of when we look back in ten years. We don't have to make excuses or cringe about stuff.” This raises a question: Is he not as proud of his band's past work? He skillfully evades a yes or no answer. “I think that you love and probably hate things about all your records. When I look back at [Places Like This], I have many regrets. It was a very dark time for the band, so with [Moment Bends], we just wanted to write something where we're feeling really good and the chemistry was just right.”