There is a serendipitous melancholy that permeates Arena, the sophomore outing from Chicago’s Pixel Grip; although released in the midst of the pandemic when the clubgoing experience has been at a standstill, the album’s material was apparently written prior to its onset. The resulting 10 tracks not only capture but also instill the sense of urgency one feels when tarting up for a night of abandon on the dance floor. All the while, Arena bears a confrontational subtext as virulent as the most politically charged industrial record, shaded by the veneer of modern disco that hearkens back to the genre’s earliest iterations.
For example, “ALPHAPUSSY” begins the proceedings in an almost grand guignol fashion, the domineering simplicity of Rita Lukea’s disaffected and android-like vocal delivery at once erotic and disquieting in its vacancy atop a rubbery bass and lightly metallic drumbeats. In contrast, “Demon Chaser” is more intricate in the octave-layered vocals subtly augmented by warm pads for a vocoder-like effect, Lukea’s forceful and breathy accompaniment serving as a primer for experimental and transgressive artist Cae Monāe’s more sardonic and menacing vocal thrust, the song eventually dissipating into an interlude of commanding sexual aggression. Both revel in their challenging of social and gender norms to celebrate queer culture in the gothic club nightlife, drawing on a palpable sense of solidarity and survival. Other songs like “Alibi” and especially “Pursuit” notably bear distinct traces of R&B, the latter full of sensual and lithe vocal melodies clashing with dissonant repetitions of throbbing bass and drum, while the staccato rhythms of “Club Mania” and the melodic pads adorning “Dancing On Your Grave” sound straight out of the ‘80s new romantic scene, both once again addressing the need for release where there seemingly is none.
All the while, Lukea’s breaths and grunts effortlessly punctuate the danceable grooves of each song, while she playfully veers from vacuous to venomous to superbly complement the dynamic soundscapes that producers Tyler Ommen and Jonathon Freund have crafted. Arena is so perfectly titled as the album plays like separate movements to an extended anthem for the marginalized and the persecuted – a sneering and almost nonchalant spit in the face of adversity. As “Play Noble” repeatedly entices us, “Let’s stay up to the morning / This is your moment.” Carpe diem!