With Aftertouch, Absolutely Free give themselves room to breathe, explore, and expand their palette, using pop tropes as jumping-off points into more esoteric, avant-garde territory.
Referring to Aftertouch, the sophomore album from psych-pop trio Absolutely Free, as “highly anticipated” doesn’t quite do it justice. The band’s 2014 self-titled debut showcased their dexterity in manipulating sound and the ease with which they let their sonic experiments pull them into unexpected directions. Last year’s original soundtrack score for the film Two Cares Due None and 2019’s Freeport Geneva EP certainly filled the void between full-lengths, but for fans of their first record, Aftertouch has felt like a distant promise.
The wait is not without precedence, as Absolutely Free has never been a band to rush their work. Born mere days after their old project DD/MM/YYYY played their last show, the band released a slow and steady drip of singles between their inception in 2011 and their first full-length. With Aftertouch, Matt King (vocals and multi-instrumentalist), Michael Claxton (bass and synth), and Moshe Fisher-Rozenberg (drums and synth) give themselves room to breathe, explore, and expand their palette. Aftertouch continues the band’s approach of using pop tropes as jumping-off points, taking tangential detours into more esoteric, avant-garde territory.
Starting at the end, as it were, with a composition titled “Epilogue (After Touch)”, they waste no time in washing listeners in kinetic sound waves, pinging around channels and striking meaty chords. With lyrics that often feel like revelatory life lessons a hero would observe after their cinematic journey is complete, the song could just as easily be the emotional wrap-up to an hours-long epic film. Conversely, second track, “How to Paint Clouds,” is a hydrogen-fueled lift-off that gives Aftertouch a pummeling and promising opening one-two punch. It’s a song indicative of the band’s skill as songwriters and soundscape artists: highly melodic without being formulaic, revelling in its subtleties as much as its sonic oomph.
Although Aftertouch loses some of its initial steam after “How to Paint Clouds,” it makes up for it with its sophistication and fluidity. “Remaining Light” is both an intellectual and artistic exploration of systemic racism and institutional corruption written in 2016 that remains relevant today. It’s easy for a casual listener to lose sight of Absolutely Free’s social commentary amidst their cosmic psychedelia; it also takes work to hone in on what King’s singing beneath the band’s swirling kaleidoscopic sound. But that has always been the character, charm, and promise of Absolutely Free: at its heart, the band are intellectuals first, entertainers second, always challenging conventions, continually blurring boundaries, and forever questioning the status quo.