Exercise One: DJs know them as crafters of cracking tracks on wax. Clubbers around the world know them as a live act that hurtles like a runaway train. Now, prepare to meet another side of the Berlin-based duo. In Cars We Rust is their debut album, and it presents the most complete picture of Exercise One’s world to date. The dancefloor stormers are still there, and the record’s flow is guided by the same spirit of improvisation that drives their live sets. But the clubbier material is rounded out by sounds we’ve never heard from Exercise One before: gorgeous, enveloping ambient tracks; soundtrack-ready synthesizer ballads; even a kind of retro-futurist electro-pop. Best of all, it all hangs together with ease.
Marco Freivogel and Ingo Gansera are the mad mechanics (albeit with a sensitive side) behind the humming, pulsing Exercise One machine, and In Cars We Rust is a testament to the distance they’ve traveled since the two began making music together five years ago. During that time they’ve released singles for Mobilee, Num, Exone and Exercise One’s own Lan Muzic imprint, but more importantly they’ve spent the time perfecting their technique. Whether performing onstage or practicing and recording, music-making is a fundamentally live endeavor for Exercise One. It happens in real time, the fortuitous result of painstaking preparation, communication and the willingness to go where the music leads them. Produced and finessed over many months, In Cars We Rust is the studio product of their hands-on approach, as passages of spontaneous creation are edited, collaged and remixed into a strikingly varied, startlingly cohesive whole.
“Circeo” comes on like dawn in August, with a rustle of percussion and muted horns giving way to slowly unfurling chords and gentle electro-acoustic chatterâ€”featuring Seth Josel on guitar, it’s a four-plus minute ambient palate-cleanser to prep you for the deep-listening experience to follow. The beats begin on “1994,” which eases out of the intro with shimmering keys and a shimmying beat, nearly dissolving into bubbly echoes of Steve Reich before cruising to a close with a dry, purposeful pulse. “It Is Happening Again” turns things up a notch with home-hewn breaks and a monter bass line courtesy Lan Muzic’s Jacopo Carreras. Throbbing and acidic, it’s the perfect snapshot of Exercise One as their needles veer into the red. They cool off with “Trapdoor”: another live favorite, this taut, undulating spiral of metallic percussion and greased oscillators rides the line between cool-down and come-upâ€”a reminder that the best minimal techno is a question of control.
Low-slung funk is the order of the day on “The Drunken Tinman,” skipping dry drum machines across a sludge-pool of charred, muddied bass; the dubby chords and queasy leads above are nothing short of narcotic. After that, “Good Kid” sounds like waking up from a fever dream, cinematic strings streaking light across the soundfield as a drunken piano line goes stumbling across the keys; after two nearly beatless minutes, the drums arrive to escort the song to its closing glory. Slow and beautiful, it’s a mixtape no-brainer. They stay with the melancholic vibe with “No News Today”; featuring Argenis Brito’s distinctive vocals, the song is the perfect fusion of electronic production and a classic pop sensibility. “Sleeper” returns to the land of smoke and strobes; lush chords flutter at the edges of a tunnel carved by diamond-tipped drums and spiraling oscillators. It’s a preparation for the full-bore onslaught of “What You Say,” a lean and mean percussive groover that won’t take “no” for an answer.
Every party has to end eventually; fortunately, Exercise One know how to let us down gently. “Don’t Slip” glides into a slinkier groove, slowing the tempo and losing itself in a field of freaky bleepsâ€”another palate cleanser, this time to set up the breathtaking finale, “Just Not!” That cryptic title doesn’t begin to suggest just how flat-out gorgeous the song is. Again featuring Argenis Brito and Jacopo Carreras, the song feels like an amalgam of all of Exercise One’s deepest tendencies, as ropy bass lines, dissipating chords and intricate rhythms spin together into a hypnotic, pulsing whole.