If the synthesizer army of techno-poppers en route to 1984 once threatened to end guitar’s hegemony on modern pop music, they sure failed. In the 21st century, six strings still trump an oscillator and keyboard, no matter how sophisticated the trappings. In less than 30 years, Dr. Moog’s wondrous invention passed from exotic novelty to overpowering fad to toolbox normalcy. But, in its prime time, the synthesizer defines an era, one so unmistakable that it can already summon up pungent nostalgia for a more innocent time with nothing more involved than the blip of a plastic key. Of all those revivalists to channel that retro sound for its kitsch value (e.g., Man or Astroman?, Denim, the pre-emptive Silicon Teens), none has done so with as much relish or effect as Pulsars, the short-lived but profoundly great group of Chicago studio rat Dave Trumfio and his drum-playing brother Harry.
Historically self-aware enough to have a song explicitly about the Silicon Teens, Pulsars had a diabolically clever handle on pop craft in debt to the dinky bounce and analog artificiality of the first flush of synthesized dance music. While many of the songs look ahead to science fiction subjects like robots and space ships, Pulsars also tell fiendish tales of dominance and submission. (There is, of course, precedent for this: the Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” based on J.G. Ballard’s Crash, and Soft Cell both rejected the whimsicality their pioneering sounds implied and impressed them instead with ugly images of violence and sadism.) If that’s unsettling, it’s also thrilling, because it proves how much more than mere futurism or reminiscence is at play here.
Arted up with tiny tray card icons of handcuffs, a mace, mask, rope, spider and eight ball, the EP contains three of the subsequent album’s tracks (“Submission Song” and “Das Lifeboat,” complete with trumpet by label co-founder Herb Alpert, plus an early version of “Owed to a Devil”) and two set-asides (the briskly Cure-like “Chicago Swingers” and the winsomely weird “Cast Iron Dog”).
The album is one of the singular musical accomplishments of the ’90s — with its combination of indelible melodies and seemingly pre-mature bedroom vulnerability and obsessions, it’s a science fair version of Pet Sounds for the computer age. Pulsars begins with a distorted countdown, a brief entreaty to “the robot” to “come out and play” on an innocuous, albeit inexplicable, note, with “Tunnel Song,” a pulsing, tuneful ode to the underwater traffic tubes of Pittsburgh and New York (“The Holland Tunnel is just like a funnel”). From there, Trumfio compares love to “Suffocation,” urges “submission to the master” and offers a Faustian bargain to a would-be pop star in the lacerating “Owed to a Devil.” On a less ominous plane, he enthuses that “Technology” will never die (so much for rock’n’roll), tells “Tales About Tomorrow,” raves about “My Pet Robot” (whose name is Theodore) and describes “Silicon Teens” (which has an amazing solo stitched together from a swoony slide guitar and crypto-industrial videogame noises), prepares for a rocket ship ride in “Runway” — all set to extraordinarily hook-laden tunes and boppy mixtures of guitars, synthesizers and drum machines that visit various rooms of retro-ness. The sequencing, which connects, even overlaps, tracks furthers the Master Cylinder sensibility of a grandly plotted schematic diagram. “Das Lifeboat,” which compares a self-destructive woman to a sinking escape vehicle, soars the album to a gorgeous cinematic finish on the stringly wings of an orchestra arranged and conducted by Tony Visconti. Technology may never die, Pulsars aver, but the group ultimately concludes that there’s more to music than transistors. And that’s as fine a faretheewell as one needs.