I'm fortunate enough that the vast majority of new releases that get to my ears for reviewing purposes are typically good, or at the very worst have redeemable or interesting qualities. The real treat is when I find myself reviewing an album or EP that manages to surprise me and intrigue me in a genre that can sometimes be weighed down with sidechained-moog-derivatives. Plug & Play, the swan song of Pittsburgh, PA's Betamaxx, is the latest album to blow me away with its sometimes dreamy, often emotional, and consistently cool sounds.
The album opens up with “Take Off", a competent track that is very quickly overshadowed and forgotten in the wake of the much stronger songs that follow. “Integrated Circuitry" gives you a good idea of the unexpected nature of the songs on Plug & Play. The synths alternate between melding together in a lush texture and standing out as distinct melodies in a way that isn't jarring. It just works. The second half of the track pushes the song into a melancholic and danceable groove. The next track, “Dreamer", featuring vocals by Rat Rios is very catchy and showcases her vocal range really well. The song particularly shines when she sings in her higher register; that's when it works best with the music.
My favorite song on the album, “Life on the Grid", is a collaboration with Arcade High. My initial listen of Plug & Play was without looking at the track listing. Upon seeing that track 6 featured Arcade High, a lot of the idiosyncrasies of the song made a lot more sense. This isn't to say that Betamaxx isn't more than capable of creating powerful tracks alone, but the melding of the distinct sounds of Arcade High with Betamaxx creates what I am comfortable calling my favorite track of 2015 so far.
The album continues to progress with strong and distinct tracks before coming upon an incredibly strong one-two punch before the closer. “Guided by Moonlight" and “Electric Cruise" are my second and third favorite tracks from the album. The former is a brooding and frantic-paced song with an explosive build and drop around the 2:10 mark. “Electric Cruise" slows things down with a smoother, funkier sound. The song is over four minutes long but never feels like it is anything past three minutes. Little melodies, the vocoder on the vocals, and little programmed beat garnishes here and there keep the track consistently fresh.
The ambivalent feeling of being both excited and optimistic, but also introspective and downcast permeate the tracks of this album. Several songs pull you in both directions simultaneously. Plug & Play is something happy and sad at the same time. It is unfortunate that this is the last Betamaxx release, but what an album it is! This is the note to end on.