Electric Youth’s ‘Breathing’ Will Take Your Breath Away

Everything happens for a reason, they say. Sometimes that happening is the dissolution of a film’s true vision, leading to irreconcilable creative differences that ultimately spawn a beautifully transcendent score for a film that might never be. This is the birth of Breathing — a new release from Electric Youth that comes out today — but it’s not the whole story.

It’s not merely collateral damage from one of Hollywood’s seemingly inevitable clashes of ideas, nor is it a straight followup to the duo’s inimitable 2014 debut album Innerworld. It’s effectively neither. The former dismisses the true quality of the work and the latter misunderstands its scope.

What Breathing is, though, is the outcome of an earnest attempt by director Anthony Scott Burns and Electric Youth’s Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin to reinvent the horror genre, according to the liner notes in Breathing. Although those three weren’t able to fully achieve their goal in film, the Electric Youth score seems to reflect their mission. The resulting body of work is one that retains the emotional colors of the genre without succumbing to the shroud of yet another Carpenteresque recreation.

What has arisen from some unfortunate Hollywood machinations is a gorgeously deft mix of synthetic and acoustic instrumentation that spans various degrees of traditional, symphonic orchestration to the crystalline and soul-connective vocal synthpop that Griffin and Garrick have been bringing us for nearly a decade. I lament that the film didn’t work out as intended, but I’m thankful this is what came of it. Because, frankly, this release is downright inspiring.

electric youth breathing review
Album art by AllCity Media.

Electric Youth Cinema

Throughout this intimate “original motion picture soundtrack from a lost film,” Electric Youth treats you to a range of emotional experiences and allows you to bear witness to an expansion of their sound. There are synthesizers, to be sure, but there are also ample offerings of acoustic piano and strings and pipes. This is the same Griffin and Garrick at their core, but they can clearly rise to the occasion required to produce a quality score.

One of the masterpiece cuts on the record is the exquisite synth-driven “Still My Love.” It has all the hallmarks of Electric Youth classics like “Innocence,” or “Runaway” — Griffin’s celestial vocals and Garrick’s smooth, glassy, and often ethereal synths that unfurl catchy melodies. It also has a few surprises for you, dear listener, but I’ll let you discover those on your own. Overall, it’s a powerful number that you’ll be going back to for years to come. It’ll be on your best-of lists with the aforementioned songs, along with the duo’s classic with College, “A Real Hero,” which lent itself to its own cinematic revelations.

Another synthpop cut, “Where Did You Go,” also has elements of the Electric Youth to which we’ve become accustomed. However, there’s an undercurrent of acoustic strings that reinforces the cinematic disposition of the piece. It’s a lovely interplay: Griffin temperately sings the song’s inquiries over kick-drum stomps, fuzzy synths, assertive arpeggiations, and sweeping strings, all glued together with just the right amount of reverb. The cut’s denouement is a driving drum machine with Yazoo-style arp interactions, pairing well with the strings.

Acoustic-Electronic Instrumentals on ‘Breathing’

On the soundtrack’s instrumental cues, Electric Youth just as easily taps into the synthy instrumental spirit of the voiceless numbers on Innerworld as they do traditional symphony for film.

The limbo-laden anticipation that bleeds through “Ether” caught my attention immediately. This synth-heavy instrumental number has understated, fuzzy synths that brush up against organic sounds in a way that is somewhat stuck to one or two notes with slightly controlled deviations on the knobs that tease the release of the fuzz before disappearing into the reverberated, well, ether.

There’s a sacred quality to it.

“In the Air One” is also centered on one long note with some splashes of synth — courtesy of knob manipulation and phrasing — but its scope is much more expansive. What begins as a modest, contemplative, and grounded work employs grand crescendos and decrescendos to take you from a stasis of anticipation straight into the heavens. The back-and-forth mimics the sway of soaring through the actual sky. There’s a sacred quality to it.

“Here It Is” might be considered an experimental, departure track for Electric Youth and is perhaps the cue that most closely evokes the horror revival of recent years. It’s a dark-edged stomper, a march that coalesces around raw synth-bass stabs, whistling crystal synths, noise experimentations, and steady but anxious drum-thumping. This might sound unbelievable, but there’s an element of this track that mirrors the sensibilities of Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, although very slightly. It’s another fine example of how the task of writing for the lost film has allowed Griffin and Garrick to expand their repertoire.

The title cue is an intricately woven approximation of every instrumental tool at Griffin’s and Garrick’s disposal. It starts out with a whisper of distant, delicate synth arpeggiations before the entrance of ominous acoustic strings and the slow, but increasingly present, blending of piano-key runs. Eventually, high-pitched strings lend their emphasis, as a wobbly synthesizer pulsates in the background. We are breathing, but it’s slightly restricted by some semblance of unease.

“Chunnel Pt 1” offers up some more experimentation, using dissonant synths and sounds, synth-driven onomatopoeia and eerie stabs of piano. Its companion second part follows suit, although the piano trickles into major-key runs and Griffin’s vox offer a salve to the potentially analogue-driven dissonance.

electric youth breathing
Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin of Electric Youth. Photo by Anthony Scott Burns.

Pianos and Strings Mean So Many Things

There are also instrumental tracks composed of predominantly traditional symphonic arrangements, performed by 17 people on violins, violas, cellos, and five-tone pipes; and which Garrick arranged and conductor Michael Peter Olsen orchestrated.

“Dark Truth,” living up to its name, uses those strings in a haunting way. The parts transition between ominous pondering and spine-rattling staccato expressions, engaging in a battle of fight-or-flight impulses. 

“It’s Them” combines strings and acoustic piano. The theme itself is catchy and filled with levity, but the way the parts weave together makes it as if all of this joy comes at some cost. It does this all in a big way — even the haunting intimacy it shows can’t escape the cinematic expanse of a large ensemble of strings.

The piano features more prominently on cues like “This Was Our House,” its reprise and “They’re Still Here.” The former stands out for its memorable melody and the latter is notable for the intimate nature of its composition and recording. It’s so intimate that you can hear the creaks of the piano’s body and the plunge of the hammer as it hits the piano’s strings. You can probably even hear Garrick’s fingers pressing the keys.

A Soundtrack with a Million Stories

Even though things didn’t work out as originally planned, the end result is a stunning soundtrack that allows you to create your own story as you experience each of the tracks — whether it’s the 23 in digital form or 16 on vinyl. Either way, you’re building your own world with the help of the profoundly talented Canadian duo who have consistently brought us so much joy.

This release is downright inspiring.

Garrick and Griffin are currently working again with Burns on a new film, this time with more control over their collective creative destiny. I’m hoping they keep working together — the fact that Burns is an Electric Youth fan and is friends with them fosters a divinely creative spark that leads to truly great things.

This release also has me thinking about the followup album to Innerworld that Garrick and Griffin are also working on. Will it follow the synthpop sound they’ve been honing and evolving for nearly 10 years? Will they incorporate more acoustic instrumentation? What if it doesn’t matter — as long as it’s an Electric Youth album, it’ll be magnificent.

Breathing is available via Milan Records as part of its curated Nicolas Winding Refn Presents series. You can get it in physical and digital forms all over the place, including Milan’s own Artist Arena store and the Italians Do It Better’s Big Cartel store.

Refn first tapped Electric Youth for music for “A Real Hero” in Drive. He most recently used their haunting “Good Blood” cut on his The Wicked Die Young compilation.

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