When "Fashion" opens Sydney trio Holy Balm's second album Activity, you may think you've stumbled across an experimental electronic record from 1983. With clattering rhythms reminiscent of electro acts like Cybotron, propulsive bass lines not unlike those on Madonna's first album, and icy, detached vocals that often recall Laurie Anderson, Activity has an otherworldly, out-of-time quality, but it is far bolder and more exploratory than mere retro fetishisation.
Across these seven lengthy songs, the plasticity of Holy Balm's analogue synth sounds takes on an eeriness and a perverse suggestiveness. The beats thump single-mindedly, while synths cycle through warped melodies, topped by vocals delivered halfway between sing-song and conversational. At heart, this is dance music, and it will have you swaying and gyrating along, but there is a braininess to it that merges the human and the artificial.
The trio have a brilliant touch with atmosphere, texture and dynamics, with many songs breaking the seven-minute mark, but feeling far shorter than that. Standout track "Hot Cold," which is sure to burn up any dancefloor is sensual, almost romantic in an indefinable way. On the aforementioned opener "Fashion," saxophone from guest Marcus Whale adds a literal breath of air to the claustrophobic beats, and the tightly wound "Aces" seems to physically sweat as it morphs, contracts and expands.
It's remarkable that Holy Balm are able to take a set of sounds that have huge potential to sound horribly outdated and add new contours and perspective to them. "All Night Long," which could be construed as a comment on the state of Sydney's nightlife, is possibly the best track here. It is marked by a restless, punching bass line and plinking synths that sound taken straight from a Super Nintendo RPG, but its mysterious atmosphere creates an image of the city at night, the air close and the streets clouded with the ghosts of revellers.
Activity functions equally well as purely physical music as it does for close, solitary listening. There is a sonic complexity to it that is never at odds with the straight-ahead movement of the ever-present rhythm. It combines the immediacy of pop with moments of discord or sinisterness that never deployed clumsily or self-consciously for example on the sprightly "Circumstance," which veers off at a moment's notice, but never leaves the listener behind.
Holy Balm should be applauded for their creativity and individuality, which is emblematic of the artistic atmosphere that Sydney provides, but more than that they should be commended for their vision resulting in such a focused and fully realised work. Even after several listens, Activity feels enigmatic and mysterious, but that's part of its charm, and that's why you will want to keep returning to it. Each listen is a discovery.