What is pop music? It is music that is popular, sure, but it’s a certain style that comes to mind – strong hooks, melodic directness, contemporary production and charismatic performance. Swedish/Australian trio Kate Boy make pop music, in the sense that the tracks that make up debut album One bear all the features of pop, but they’ve been on the periphery of success and acclaim for nearly three years since the group’s inception. Their style of synth-pop might be in vogue thanks to the likes of Chvrches and Tove Lo, but do Kate Boy have what it takes to compete on the same level?
They certainly have the ambition to. One is a bombastic album, full of loud verses and louder choruses. The production is digitally precise and pristine, designed to make a full impact of every sound available, so the beats are full-bodied and thumping, the basslines deep and resonant, and the synths rich and glassy – it’s a bold, muscular listen, wringing maximalist sounds from minimal components. Kate Akhurst’s vocals are perfect for the elephantine structures: not quite the throaty bellow of Florence or wavering sweetness of Robyn but somewhere between the two, with the strength and melodic flair of early Bjork.
There’s a glut of bands whose work can be varyingly described as in debt to cult duo The Knife. Of course, it’s lazy shorthand to compare every electronic act with a female singer to those influential Swedes, but Kate Boy do align perfectly with the likes of Austra, Niki & The Dove and Zhala. But Kate Boy distinguish themselves by chasing the strongest hooks, eschewing the artfulness and experimentalist tendencies of their peers.
One might not seem sophisticated in comparison, but it’s a rewarding listen in its sense of unabashed grandeur. The opening pair of ‘Midnight Sun’ and ‘Northern Lights’ are the strongest songs here: the former an undulating stop-start disco strut of hedonistic surrender; the latter a mid-tempo r&b groove weaving around fractured rave stabs. ‘Human Engine’ conjures up memories of Depeche Mode at their most commercial, with Akhurst’s energy coupled to a knowing wink in her performance, a challenge to keep up with her own sense of power.
If Kate Boy operate as human engines, then the road they drive down is a motorway: high-energy, reliable and steady. But they don’t. One has moments where the tempo varies and there’s some space to breathe, but it’s nearly an hour of synth-pop bangers. And while just about every song would work as a single, over a full album it becomes flat and overly familiar. It would be unfair to claim One is formulaic or monotonous, but by the album’s midpoint it’s pretty clear what to expect going forward: majestic choruses, cutting-edge electronics and club-ready rhythms. The pleasure in this album depends on how far such mileage in futuristic pop can take you: a bit of judicious editing and One would make for a perfect EP.
For a casual or new fan, One is a worthwhile investment, but when over half the tracks are already available – ‘Midnight Sun’ was also a prior single – it feels a little disheartening. ‘Midnight Sun’ and ‘Human Engine’ are both strong tracks, almost strong enough to justify buying an album of tracks that are already available, but One feels like a victory lap more than a statement of intent. That’s maybe why Kate Boy have struggled to reach the acclaim and success of their peers. They’ve been a name floating about for a few years, the kind of band whose SoundCloud tracks might brighten up a dull afternoon but who haven’t built up enough goodwill or enough of a catalogue to amass crossover potential. There’s a sense of inertia around their career: not in the songs they write, but the way they’ve approached their career.
If all that sounds harsh, it shouldn’t, because One isn’t a bad album – it’s not easy to dismiss it as unexciting or derivative, even when there are moments when it is just that, and that’s because both the song-writing and performance are there. It’s a frustrating album because there’s a wealth of potential here, and Kate Boy seem so capable and talented that it’s impossible to not will them on to better things. In the second line of ‘Human Engine’, Akhurst sneers that ‘there’s nothing dynamic about staying in the same damn spot.’ It’s advice that Kate Boy could have taken on board themselves, stretching their ambition just a little outwards to make an album that’s good into something great.