What distinguishes Axel Boman’s music from other house music may be obvious to the ears, but it can be hard to put your finger on. The Stockholm producer avails himself of the same materials as many of his peers in the European dance underground—spongy synth bass, sharp-edged drum hits, filtered disco samples—but even when hewing to convention, Boman’s bouncy, brightly colored tracks stand out as though sprinkled with fairy dust. His productions are a little cartoonish, a little dreamlike, a little off-kilter. Like his occasional labelmate DJ Koze, Boman knows that there’s a fine line between a knee-slapper and a tearjerker: His music harbors both a sly sense of humor and an unmistakable melancholy, and the former often feels like a coping strategy for the latter.
In the nine years since his debut LP, 2013’s Family Vacation, the Studio Barnhus co-founder has mostly busied himself with singles and EPs, developing his idiosyncratic style on songs like “1979,” a bittersweet draught of sentimental deep house, and the more rambunctious “Voodoo,” which might elicit the mental image of elephants carousing on a merry-go-round. Two years ago, on Le New Life, he stretched slow-burning deep-house tracks to 12 and 13 minutes, the better to sink listeners into eyes-closed bliss. Boman has never been afraid to fiddle with format: He’s made music out of gamma radiation and released a 12" of nothing but locked grooves.
LUZ and Quest for Fire make for an especially unusual proposition. On streaming services, they’re presented as two distinct yet complementary albums. The physical edition bundles them together and spreads them across six sides of vinyl—or one and one-half discs per album. The inner sleeves of the 3xLP package are printed with an absurdist short story by the Swedish artist and “internet antiquarian” Erik Lavesson. The story revolves around a fictional remake of the 1981 caveman film Quest for Fire that ends in bankruptcy, madness, and stateless elephants roaming Iceland’s volcanic plains. (In a separate text about the story, Lavesson expounds at some length on the subject of Ulam, the guttural caveman language that Anthony Burgess invented for the 1981 film, and notes his interest in writing something that could connect the language to Boman’s music.) Over their cumulative hour and 23 minutes and 18 tracks, the two albums offer the fullest picture yet of Boman’s tragicomic worldview.
Across both albums, sampled choirs billow, sub-bass rumbles, and strings and synth pads tremble like spring blossoms in the breeze; vintage easy listening daubs many songs with a trace of sticky-sweet sap. There’s a real sense of physicality to Boman’s sounds, which he applies in thick, gloopy brushstrokes; if you could run your fingers across his virtual canvas, you’d detect nubby congas and midrange swirls and tiny pinprick hi-hats that bristle to the touch. Quirky details are woven into the fabric of the music: In the silky, ecstatic “Grape,” a hard-panned thwack positions you smack in front of the net in a table-tennis game; in the spangled disco epic “Sottopassaggio,” Boman spins the knob on his delay unit so hard that space-time threatens to pull apart at the seams. Tempos range from languid slo-mo to cocaine fast, but mostly it hangs in the midrange, Latin accents and disco shimmer fleshing out its contours; steady son clave patterns pepper both albums like conga-line Morse code. What if, Boman seems to be asking us, cruise ships were actually cool?
Luz is, by a slim margin, the more lighthearted of the two records. On the dubby breakbeat house anthem “BHUKA,” South African vocalist Kamohelo (of the Barnhus-signed group Off the Meds) raps in gravelly triplets over starburst arpeggios; the plunging bassline evokes the feeling of walking on air, suggesting a spiritual kinship to “Purple Drank,” Boman’s woozy 2010 breakout hit. In the narcotized “Gröna Dalen,” blown-out bass sucks like quicksand at the lite-funk squelch and harp glissandi of soft-focus Swedish romance flicks; on “’Atra,” rollicking cowbells and a sun-warmed saxophone solo encapsulate the record’s feel-good vibes. Boman veers closest to going full gonzo on “Out Sailing,” a jittery pastiche of yacht rock and French house whose giddily yowled refrain (“My love is out sailing!”) is the only potentially divisive moment on either album; as with frozen blue daiquiris, you may wish to moderate your intake at first, to see how it sits with you.
Not everything on Luz is so tongue in cheek; the enveloping, bass-forward “Edgeware Road” feels almost like an attempt to craft a fast-techno version of one of Yo La Tengo’s most patient and sensitive ballads, and on Quest for Fire, Boman gets even more sentimental. “One Two” plays skippy hi-hats off somber chords, recalling French house eccentric Pépé Bradock’s starry-eyed lullabies; “Stone Age Jazz” sets bird-like trills against rosy background vocals and lawn-sprinkler hiss, a perfect picture of poolside idyll. Quest for Fire is home to much of the slower material—like “Cacti Is Plural,” a shadowy acid track in the tradition of the early-’00s duo Closer Musik and, before that, the eerier ends of the Rephlex catalog—but it also features the fastest: “Jeremy Irons,” a hard-driving cut that turns a truncated disco loop into one of the heaviest techno behemoths of the year.
Why Boman decided to release LUZ and Quest for Fire in this way, as conjoined twins rather than a conventional double album, is unclear. So, too, is the precise relationship between Lavesson’s odd short story and Boman’s own music, whose cheeky reference points are more space age than stone age. Both albums prove more bittersweet than some of their more whimsical overtones might suggest. Even the sunniest tracks, like “Sottopassaggio,” have an element of wistfulness. This emotional duality, so easy to miss when the tempo is high, comes to the fore on “Hold On,” the lilting song that closes LUZ. Over chiming, major-key chords and little tendrils of guitar, an uncredited Baba Stiltz sings, “Don’t be scared/Even if it’s been scary for a while/Lift your head up/Give yourself a smile.” He goes on: “When the going gets tough, it sucks/That’s why you got to hold on.” The sentiment is a hair’s breadth from being hopelessly hokey, but for whatever reason, it just works. Chalk it up to the spiritual and psychic exhaustion of the past two years, or to his agreeably low-key tone, or to the funny assonant rhyme between “gets tough” and “it sucks,” setting up the latter to land like a good-natured punchline. Boman may comport himself like a tattooed trickster, but at its most sincere, his music feels like a warm embrace.