Disarmed is Jesper Dahlbäck at his most baroque. Synths drift towards heaven like demons toward the soot-darkened spire of an ancient church. Electronically warped and delayed guitars ebb and surge in and out of rich atmospheres that are orchestral in scope but digital in feeling. Cold, sparse and crisp Kraftwerkian techno--a Dahlbäck signature–appears in spades, but it rubs against layered shoegaze textures and the smoldering ashes of minor key melodies to keep warm.
Dählbck didn't get this gothic on his own. It's his collaboration with Mark O'Sullivan–as DK7–that has teased out the moodier, more ornate side of this otherwise stoic Swede. Likewise, it's Dahlbäck who convinced O'Sullivan–who typically produces electronic dub and laidback house as Mighty Quark and Bacuzzi–to channel his inner Dave Gahan, which has resulted in the ominous vocals that often direct the pair's debut album for Output.
The story behind DK7 is considerably less gloomy. It all harkens back to a Stockholm pizzeria, where O'Sullivan and Dahlbäck first met through a mutual friend. "[My first impression of Jesper] was a guy who walked like a penguin wearing an army jacket," laughs O'Sullivan sarcastically, his Irish brogue scarcely dampened by 12 years of living in Sweden. "He was working on the Stockholm [Mix Sessions album for Turbo] and needed someone to help him with guitar stuff." After a smooth initial collaboration, the pair quickly became musical sparring partners, calling each other up when they required a bit of My Bloody Valentine atmospherics or King Jammy echo effects here, or glimmering tech touches there.
After four years of erstwhile tracks for Sunday Brunch and Svek, O'Sullivan and Dahlbäck decided to make something just for themselves. They tapped into the midway point between their respective backgrounds–O'Sullivan's musical upbringing in Cork'reland in the '80s and Dählback's coming-of-age in the nascent European rave scene–to create "The Difference" (first released on DK7, then Output). An intense 303 stormer–driven by a creepy O'Sullivan vocal about fucking your brain dry–the track wriggled its way onto the dancefloors of late 2002, driving clubbers into a frenzy while subtly presaging the pending acid house revival.
The ease of working together–along with the enthusiasm of Output label head Trevor Jackson--encouraged the duo to set to work on an entire DK7 album. But the same vibe that had inspired "The Difference" didn't seem to work on other tracks. "In the beginning, we tried to repeat the single--acid, clubby, dancefloor stuff–but we were really fed up with that sound," recalls Dahlback. "So we just did what we wanted to. Mark didn't even want to sing but as the project went along he took on another challenge and tried to really write songs with a pop structure."
Truly, the most striking thing about the album is the resemblance it bears to the time when New Wave intersected with early techno, the gene splicing of bands like Depeche Mode and Human League with Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire and early Detroit sounds. This has to do with its synths and pulsating mechanical beats, but also with the dark, droning lyrics of tracks like "Fire" and "Heart Like a Demon," inspired by an Elvis Costello country song called "Good For the Roses."
This is strange when you consider that 28-year-old Dahlbäck cares little about these bands. "I wasn't too into music when I was little," he admits. "I listened to the radio, but I never really cared to find out who was playing or the name of the songs. I was more interested in dissecting this wall of sound and trying to understand what was going on from [a technological angle]."
When I suggest to him that the album nevertheless has retro influences, he offers, "I guess it's like one leg in the future and one leg in the past." He pauses, weighing his words. "It sounds pretentious, but I can't make a better explanation."
O'Sullivan, meanwhile, is more forthcoming about the record. "It's a very emotional album," he admits. "At the time of recording, we both were going through a lot of things that were totally turning our whole fucking lives upside down [and] Bush was turning the whole fucking world upside down. There was a time when we were working on this album where it was like 'We're lost.' People were just losing their humanity. And it doesn't matter what we say, it's not going to make any difference.
"Other [lyrics were about] matters of the heart and love," he continues, hinting that both he and Dahlbäck went through difficult break-ups while recording Disarmed. "It's a very romantic album' think, and it's a very honest album." And then, as if to prove the--8 degree temperatures outside haven't dampened his sarcasm, he dryly adds, "Men revealing their hearts on an electronic album...Does that make us metrosexuals?"