No band wrote more love songs than Stereolab, and all of them were dedicated to fictional electronic machinery: “Percolator,” “Motoroller Scalatron,” “Lo Boob Oscillator.” Two literally personified the, uh, object of affection, as “Jenny Ondoline” and “Miss Modular.” They wore their fetish for electric sheep on their sleeves. The music itself, some of the most fully realized of the two decades they existed in, usually strove to resemble the fantastical devices it was named after, and succeeded. In 2016, it feels like “hipster” has a particular, post-trucker-hat meaning, but there’s no better name for straight-faced squares who combined as many non-rock sources (Moog synths, lounge music, old sci-fi soundtracks) as that decreasingly rock-like outfit could.
So Cavern of Anti-Matter, the new brainchild of Stereolab’s Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth with synth-wrangler Holger Zapf, treats their proper debut album as if it’s their fifth or ninth, naming it void beats/invocation trex like any obscure find in the bin. To call it a continuation is to hex yourself with the three-word incantation “Thanks Captain Obvious,” with brand-new inventions like “tardis cymbals” and “pantechnicon” stretching their motorized legs for nearly 20 minutes of cushy analog proceedings. If anything, the new act’s electronic dedication is more laudatory and single-minded than the O.G.s. More streamlined and less songful than Gane and Dilworth’s more well-known faction, Cavern of Anti-Matter somehow doesn’t feel limited by their stricter pursuit of unobstructed synth purity.
Thus the highway-hypnosis of “tardis cymbals” or the skipping-CD-paced “insect fear” feel more sensation-based than even the 18-minute epics in the ‘Lab catalog. Dilworth’s drumming on void beats especially bucks the affectlessness of Cavern’s antecedents in favor of a brawny new physicality. On the aptly named “hi-hats bring the hiss” he pirouettes through terse fills while synths frantically roll off the top like someone on acid trying to shake off invisible ants. It could’ve been on Aphex Twin’s Syro if it was programmed rather than performed.
Void beats enjoys advantages over lesser Stereolab releases like 2001’s Sound-Dust by offering a rockish danceability they never explored. But the Faustian bargain also ensures there’s no easy pop song like 1996’s “Cybele’s Reverie” or 2008’s “Self-Portrait With ‘Electric Brain’” to break up the largely instrumental bleep-sweep. We do get the pleasant and jarring intermission of an archetypal Bradford Cox track on “liquid gate,” but it’s only two minutes between two other tracks stretching to nine. Although these lengthy beginning-middle-enders are not exactly Eric Prydz, they suggest a welcome relationship with EDM that properly brings Gane’s pioneering drone-pop into the 2010s, without sacrificing the archaic space noises they share with fellow gear-dorks like Black Moth Super Rainbow. Evoking Neu! at Coachella isn’t the most implausible takeaway.
Another one is the idea that all this equipment-testing serves the greater good of F-U-N, exemplified by the wordless power ballad “black glass action,” which sounds like Air scoring the end credits of a Western. That “cavern” thing is important; there’s lots of maneuvering room in these jams and the synth pads have a tactile fullness that couldn’t have been generated or mimicked digitally. And so it comes back to the way these knob-twiddlers care for the things that they love. It’s just in this case those objects of adoration have aux inputs.