Aktor – Placebo Review

Chris Black (AKA Professor Black) has been a living wellspring for great metal over the past decade, crafting great music with DawnbringerHigh Spirits and Pharaoh. Somewhat overlooked in his mighty repertoire is his Aktor project, which until recently only had one release to its credit, 2015s Paranoia. It was a rocking affair heavily influenced by 70s acts like Thin Lizzy and Blue Oyster Cult and it was a fun, breezy listening experience with plenty of hooks. Placebo is the outfit’s second release and keeps the basic formula intact while adding an ass-ton of crazy synth and keyboard work, making for a somewhat loony soundscape. The classic Chris Black charm is still present and the retro rock is often quite entertaining and amusing, but some chinks in the armor make for a mixed listening experience.

There are some rocking chestnuts here worthy of any summertime party playlist, like the rabble rousing opener “Bad Mirror,” which gives The Night Flight Orchestra a run for retro rock supremacy. It’s high-octane and quirky as hell, with nutty keyboards battling rock riffs and energetic, madcap vocals from Mr. Black. It sounds like something The Cars might have come up with in 1982 if they stumbled on some bathtub meth before recording, and that in itself makes it worth hearing. Followup cuts like “Washed Away” and “You and Me” are equally vibrant and bouncy, with the latter showing fleeting touches of darkness. Elsewhere, “Save You from Me” sits at the nexus between weird 70s rock and early 80s MTV pop and somehow manage to make that work by keeping things simple while adding weird electronics and synths for extra spice. “The Ghosts of Time” is the perfect example of this style, pairing a highly minimalist structure with all sorts of chaotic, cheesy synths. These almost overwhelm the end product, but somehow it manages to hang on and mostly work.

This isn’t always the case though. Cuts like “Astronaut” wander too far off the star map, trying to approximate something like 70s David Bowie if he was trying to be way more poppy while still maintaining a dark edge. Things end up jumbled and jangled with too many cheesy keyboard effects and a tendency to repeat ideas until they grow tiresome. The same issues infect the album’s longest track “Seeing Rocks in the Sky,” which sounds like a deranged mix of 80s Genesis and early Judas Priest. It too succumbs to over-repetition and cheesy elements, and the bad outweighs the good, though there’s a solid song hidden within. Placebo winds out with this track and another less than stellar cut, “Clean Machine” that channels Oingo Boingo unsuccessfully, thereby ending things with a minor thud.

For all it’s flaws, the album does tend to fly by pretty fast at a svelte 39:49. It’s fun trying to spot all the various influences from the bygone times the music dabbles in, and no matter how frowny faced you may be, there will be moments that get your mood elevated. Hell, you might even smile once or thrice. Chris Black’s vocals are the same as always – simple, unpolished but effective and charismatic, and Jussi Lehtisalo (Circle) adds some interestingly minimalist and dated riff-work. He likely handled the chaotic keyboards as well, and though I wish he dialed those back a few notches (especially, the rave club effects, which make me cringe), the band was going for a certain sound and those are a part of it for better or worse.

Placebo is an odd duck of an album, trying to merge several genres and time periods while keeping things simple and direct. When it works it’s a lot of fun, but when things go south, they go way south. As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Chris Black’s works, I wanted to like this more than I do, but hey, you can’t win them all. I’d still bet on Black 9 times out of 10 and have nothing but respect for the man. If you want some oddball retro rock, this might hit the spot for you. As for me, I’ll roll the dice and wait for the new The Night Flight Orchestra opus.

Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Ektro Records
Websites: aktor.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/fightinginthedark
Releases Worldwide: February 24th, 2020

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