Matthew Dear has been an electronic-music icon for some time now, releasing myriad techno offerings under various monikers and serving as the flagship artist for influential record label Ghostly International. Since 2007's Asa Breed, his focus for work under his given name has moved away from techno and toward vocal-oriented avant-pop, culminating in the wonderfully dark and eccentric Black City in 2010. His Headcage EP, released yesterday via Ghostly, continues on that trajectory, moving toward music for a wider audience while maintaining much of the oddness that makes him popular in the world beyond the mainstream. That said, the Headcage EP isn't nearly as engaging as Black City, and aside from "In the Middle (I Met You There)," does not offer anything especially praiseworthy. The goal of the EP is easily accomplished, however, as it is certainly good enough to pique interest in Beams, Dear's full-length album due out later this year.
"Headcage" is a solid track, but doesn't quite click on all cylinders the way one expects from an artist as acclaimed as Dear. The track's chugging beat, which mimics the polyrhythmic, world-music-leaning explorations of '80s artists such as the Talking Heads or Peter Gabriel, is passable as a dance cut on its own, but with Dear's vocals it becomes only an oft-kilter, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time pop tune. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what the song's Swedish co-producers Van Rivers and The Subliminal Kid add to the track, but it's possible the song's lack of real cohesion stems from having too many artists offering input. Dear's success on Black City stemmed from his ability to straddle the line between toe-tapping pop sensibility and forward-thinking experimentation. This song appears to try this approach, but doesn't quite make it—the hook doesn't emphatically catch, and there isn't enough quirky weirdness to make the song interesting enough without more pop flavoring.
"In the Middle (I Met You There)" is the clear highlight of the EP, and is perhaps the most straight-forward pop song ever crafted by Dear. The easy-going synths, simple backbeat, and crooning vocals from Jonathon Pierce of The Drums coalesce into a synth-pop track of the highest order. The sound doesn't push any boundaries, but Matthew Dear's take on chillwave is a significant elevation for the oft-bland and over-reverberating genre. Dear's vocals work fantastically as backup to Pierce's, and add an interesting texture to a hazy pop sound that rarely incorporates baritone vocals. On the track, Dear does an unparalleled job managing the emotions of build-ups and break-downs, a skill likely acquired during his days creating looping and aggressive techno.
The last two tracks offer a major digression from the feeling of the first two, turning from pop-oriented creations to spacey soundscapes. "Street Song" is a minimalist production featuring virtually nothing besides simple synth lines and Dear's largely unintelligible falsetto, while "Around the Fountain" gets somewhat cacophonous with its heavily delayed percussion. Both tunes eschew structure in favor of atmosphere and are quasi-ambient songs that would fit well as intermediary tracks on a longer release, but don't stand out on a four-song EP. "Around the Fountain" is especially interesting, and Dear's bassy vocals backing up his own falsetto is particularly pleasing.
Overall, the EP doesn't outshine Dear's latest work, Black City, or, quite frankly, any of his other genre-bending techno and pop efforts from the last several years. But it doesn't necessarily portend a drop-off in quality for the producer, and may even be a signal of good things to come on his forthcoming full-length, Beams.