It’s almost impossible to even think about the Italian electronic music scene without Kirlian Camera as Angelo Bergamini has cultivated the band’s sound and reputation for 40 years. With Cold Pills (Scarlet Gate of Toxic Daybreak), the band makes a concentrated effort to veer away from the electro and synthpop stylings of past offerings in favor of a darker, more metallic approach; spanning 16 tracks and over an hour-and-23-minutes, the overall tone of this double album is as monochromatically gloomy as the cover art, but that’s not to say there aren’t shades of brilliance to be heard… quite the contrary.
First and foremost, the compositional style shared between Bergamini and vocalist Elena Alice Fossi has yielded some rather exquisitely arranged pieces whose character is electronic in nature, but with a sophistication that attains that all-too-overused term of symphonic. One need listen no further than the opening track, “The Illusory Guest,” for proof as an eerie electronic warble enters like the labored breathing of a machine on its last legs; soon, the stutters of orchestral strings and waves of ambient pads set the stage for a lightly strident rhythm and entrancing synth arpeggios moving through major and minor key shifts to underscore Fossi’s wispy and despondent voice, everything building steadily to a lush and harmonious chorus. It’s a grand statement, for sure, echoed in similarly constructed displays of audio drama like “I Became Alice,” in which a strutting rock beat and ominously distorted growls of bass drive toward a sweeping chorus of singing guitars and strings coupled with Fossi’s boldly emotive voice, or “Lobotomine” with its immaculate operatic harmonies and swells of evocative synths creating one of the album’s most thoroughly majestic moments, ended by the switch to a robotic coda of blistering vocoders. Other songs follow a more dreamy – or perhaps nightmarish – stream of unconsciousness, like the appropriately titled “Dreamlex” moving through wistful peaks and valleys of pianos, synths, and vocal effects, and the thrusting tribal rhythms of “Dusk Religion,” the thrums of bass slithering just under the surface of the mix to add to its penetrating groove and sustained howls of noisy guitar, processional organs, and more of Fossi’s gorgeous harmonies.
However, Kirlian Camera hasn’t entirely given up on the simplicity of pop on Cold Pills, as tracks like “Phoenix Aliena,” “Lux Industries,” and “Crystal Morn” are rather straightforward with their danceable beats and undeniably catchy melodies. The latter track is especially notable as it begins with trickling synths and electro beats like raindrops for Fossi to indulge in some saccharine synthpop balladry; the key changes, the tempo picks up to a disco beat, and the song almost turns into something Erasure might have conjured up… it’s not as jarring as one might expect, but it does briefly succor the inherent melancholy of the rest of the album. The same can be said of “Apophenia” for despite its 7/8 time signature, its vibrant energy is indisputable, while “Not True” has a distinct ‘90s flair thanks to its distant chanting voices, vocaloid synths, and trippy beats. “Twin Pills” concludes the collection by taking the listener to the Roadhouse, the slow and bittersweet track wrought with gliding bass and percolating pads, Fossi’s elegant voice very reminiscent of Julee Cruise to make for a brightly ironic end to an album stricken with unrelenting gray.
Not every track on Cold Pills lands as keenly as it should, which can make for a somewhat disjointed experience. Although the cold piano of “Randonists and Sleepers” and the dissonant drones of “Blue Drug” provide some nice interludes and like the aforementioned tracks like “Phoenix Aliena” and “Lux Industries” are well within Kirlian Camera’s pedigree, they are rather unremarkable and for this writer, tended to disrupt the otherwise consistent deliberate flow that a double album requires. But even these are minor blemishes that can easily be overlooked in the face of such extravagant production and erudite songwriting, making Cold Pills (Scarlet Gate of Toxic Daybreak) easily one of Kirlian Camera’s most accomplished releases.