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Seeing as four years have passed since Fuck Buttons released their last album, it was pretty difficult to know what to expect from them. After all, they already made the leap from the noise-rock, harsh soundscapes, and distorted screamed vocals of Street Horrrsing to the celebratory, maximalist epics of Tarot Sport in the space of one album. The latter has remained something of an under-appreciated masterpiece, although the band’s well-documented inclusion at last year’s Olympics opening ceremony and their stage headlining show at Glastonbury this year (where they went head to head with no less than the Rolling Stones in the schedule) have gone some way to redressing that imbalance.

Slow Focus is both an extension of Fuck Buttons’ inimitable sound and a subversion of it. The territory here is less glow stick and more shadow as the duo continues to layer on walls of synthesizer at the service of a darker sound. The stark opening of “Brainfreeze,” with its pounding tribal drums, is a signifier that perhaps the ride is not going to be quite as pleasant this time round. After a while the song begins to be layered in the kind of dense and woozy electronics that have become the group’s trademark, and the end effect of the eight-and-a-half minute behemoth is the realization that four years away has not dulled the impact of their sound.

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Following the flurry of “Year Of The Dog,” the next surprise is the slowed down hip-hop dynamic of lead single “The Red Wing,” a song whose extended album mix proves to be much more satisfying than the single edit. The slow beat is accentuated with deep rich synth sounds while other elements creep in from the margins. The Vangelis-style strings add another dimension to the track before its cacophonous climax, which for all its oppressive weight remains a sound to stand back and admire in awe.

That sense of unease reaches its apex in the industrial, metallic opening of “Sentients,” which gives way to a looping robotic voice, feedback, and a noise that sounds like a six-minute warning. Although the lightweight “Prince’s Prize” (the album’s shortest and most disposable track) does break the spell slightly, the long, drawn-out march of “Stalker” again returns to that oppressive feel, building and building through phases that sound like a lost piece from a John Carpenter movie soundtrack and reaching a heavy, suffocating peak. It is a song that requires total immersion rather than passive listening, and it is further proof that despite the doom vibe on Slow Focus, the sense of melody remains strong even if those melodies are designed to unsettle rather than thrill.

It is only in the finale of “Hidden XS” that Fuck Buttons finally release the tension with the kind of escalating, high-energy song that could easily have made it onto their previous album. It is a giddy ten-minute rush, an exploding star of a song building upon a very simple melody until the track becomes a cascade, and it is further proof of the band’s almost unique ability to transform something that should be repetitious and overlong into something that is compelling and life-affirming simply through a nanosurgical grasp of the song’s dynamics.

While Slow Focus is a more demanding and more difficult album than Tarot Sport, it is no less rewarding. It requires patience and time, but despite a more downbeat approach, it remains a muscular and thoroughly convincing work. To go back to an earlier point I made in this review, it establishes the band as genuinely inimitable. They have made this sound very much their own and carved their own space in the modern musical landscape. As such, the world needs Fuck Buttons to relentlessly explore the possibilities of this sound and to reach the parts other bands cannot reach.

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