Duett is back with their second album Borderline. The album comes a year after the debut release Horizons which was very well received and a couple of singles.
Based in the UK, Duet is essentially a one-man band with Ben Macklin at the helm. Macklin has an impressive amount of production work under his belt covering a range of styles as well as being part Cassette Club with Tom Hammond. With this new release, the high production values and depth of experience in Duett’s work raises the bar in terms of what a quality release is.
I’m not sure if the album’s title was intentionally inspired by the Madonna song of the same name but it’s a nice nod to the era that Duett seem to get their inspiration from. Like Horizons, before it the new album is predominantly instrumental but vocal tracks also feature this time around. Stewart Lockwood deftly contributes lyrics and vocals to two tracks – ‘Running Scared’ and ‘Julienne’ – creating some excellent synth pop moments. The instantly memorable opening chords to ‘Running Scared’ are timeless and lift you right off the ground. This is a bonafide hit that deserves a suitable music video (which I’m sure most listeners can already picture in their heads). If you can’t get enough of the song head to Duett’s Bandcamp and pick up the 80s-style extended dub version of the track.
The album's other vocal track ‘Julianne’ is a restrained but more up-tempo pop song where Lockwood channels a little of A-Ha’s Morten Harket. ‘Julianne’ also features electric guitars courtesy of Cassette Club’s Tom Hammond.
Borderline is not an outrun or sci-fi themed instrumental album although fans of both styles will find something to like here. None of the songs get to full-on four-to-the-floor territory apart from ‘The City’ and ‘Channel’ the latter of which slots right in to Miami Nights 1984 territory, especially with its bendy synth solo. On that note, as far as comparisons go, its best to make them with contemporary artists of which the obvious choice is Sellorekt/LA Dreams. If you are a fan of the LA Dreams, Rain Sword and Timecop 1983 you’ll surely be making room on your list for Duett, if you haven’t already.
Where Duett set themselves apart is the attention to song arrangements, the choice of sounds and setting the mood. All of these things are expertly combined with a kind of effortless musical ‘common sense’ that invokes repeat listenings and ingrains the album into your mind. This is an album you’ll come back to, not play once and forget.
Aside from ‘Running Scared’ the personal highlight on the album is ‘Provision’. This song paints the scene of driving around LA circa “Beverly Hills Cop” with its Harold Faltermeyer sound of DX7 vibes, 808 percussion and subtle synth stabs. For a point of difference it features an atmospheric vocal sample reminiscent of artists such as early William Orbit.
Of course it would be easy to roll out the standard lines of “these songs would be great in a John Hughes film yada yada”. Yes the songs are all that and more, but Borderline is evidence that if you combine the right elements – the music, the vibe, the artwork you can create a style of music that has a universal core, no matter if you made it in Antartica or Guatemala. The grey days of the UK are no exception to a sunny disposition.
To get a little more background on Borderline I asked Duett’s Ben Macklin a few questions:
ABW: Considering you produce a range of different musical styles was it a conscious decision to create the Duett sound or did it evolve on its own?
Duett: I had always produced 80s influenced music, with my Cassette Club project. Tom and I were working on music together less, and I wanted an outlet for some of the ideas I was working on. I also didn’t always want to be under pressure to produce vocal tracks either, so starting something fresh felt like something I wanted to do. It happened that on Borderline I brought Stewart Lockwood in to feature on a couple of tracks, but I have freedom to do what I want. Tom features on the guitar at the end of ‘Julienne’, so we always still work together if we get the chance.
ABW: The first Duett album was all instrumental but with Borderline you have added vocals on a couple of tracks. Given your experience with vocals would it be fair to say that is nothing new or do you see Duett focusing on vocal tracks in the future? Or is the instrumental side of things equally important?
Duett: I don’t have any set ideas when I’m making a track. Borderline could’ve been an instrumental album again if I hadn’t linked up with (vocalist) Stewart. I do think though that albums I’m influenced by have a mix of styles, textures and feelings, and that if someone writes a vocal that works I’m always open to giving it a try.
ABW: How/why did you come to use Stewart Lockwood for vocal duties?
Duett: Stewart and I have been friends for a long time, and I knew he could sing, but it wasn’t until I started working on the Duett stuff that we got talking about a collaboration. We have an almost identical taste in music, so we come at these tracks from the same place. What I like most about working with Stewart, is that his lyrics are really interesting, and he always understands what I’m trying to do with the tracks.
ABW: Duett is based the UK yet the music evokes the feeling of the west coast of the U.S. The stereotype of the UK is that it is quite grey and rainy, even in the summer, so how do you create the sunny vibe?
Duett: A lot of early 80s music in the UK was from an industrial, cold background, but it was packaged with bright videos shot in hot countries (Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet), so a lot of the time I automatically think about palm trees and beaches when I think about electronic music.
ABW: Briefly, what are the most influential artists of the 80s that make their way into Duett?
Duett: The biggest influences for me are Propaganda, Arif Mardin, Paul Hardcastle, Sophie & Peter Johnston, Jam & Lewis, Art Of Noise, Howard Jones.
ABW: Considering your music shares a similar sound, do you consider Duett to be the UK’s answer to Sellorekt/LA Dreams?
Duett: I don’t think of myself as being a UK answer to anything. Those guys have got such a great sound, but I think we’re probably all influenced by a lot of the same things, and just want to make music we’re in to.
Duett's Bordeline is thoroughly a Synthetix Reference Experience and you can find it on Bandcamp here in the usual downloadable digital formats and they are now taking preorders for a limited edition cassette release.