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(Self-released, digital, vinyl)
So far, the 2020s have been good for synth-pop. First there was the pandemic, which made the idea of creating vast soundscapes from small machines more appealing than ever. In early 2022, Harry Styles launched his Grammy-winning streak with the head-spinning synths on the single "As It Was." On his heels came the revival of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill," a 1985 hit that topped charts again after featuring prominently in the Netflix series "Stranger Things."
Closer to home, the pandemic era has delivered a new solo synth-pop project from Brattleboro-based singer-songwriter Hannah Hoffman. As Dutch Experts, she released an EP titled Bound by This.
In the EP's liner notes, Hoffman cites isolation and long COVID symptoms as influences. Bound by This offers a glimpse into a dark and dreamy world, where the dizzying instrumentation is anchored by Hoffman's confident and evocative vocals. The recording also features guitar and bass by Graham Brooks; drums by Bruce Black; and production by Hoffman, Brooks and Mikey Allred.
Through some synesthetic trick, these four songs bring to my mind a visual of playing the computer game Marble Madness, in which the player directs a virtual marble through an abstract tiled course, running the constant risk of rolling off the edge of the course and into the yawn of empty digital space. Hoffman is world-building, and the atmosphere she's cultivated is at once retro and speculative, bringing sonic comfort and uneasy emotional possibility to the same songs.
The title track opens with a funky bass line, and the layered vocals create a gorgeous chorus effect. Listening is like walking upward on an escalator going down, which to me is the trick of a good synth riff: It feels as though the song is ascending, even if the notes remain the same.
"Your Heart" further demonstrates how well produced and well mixed the EP is. The synths draw pulsing circles in the background but do not overpower Hoffman's singing. The bridge devolves appealingly into a chaos of layers before Hoffman reins it all back in.
The opening bars of "Soon" tickled the same part of my brain that, at a tender age, was blown away by Van Halen's "Jump." Now that I (allegedly) have a fully developed frontal cortex, I'm enchanted by the way Hoffman takes an upbeat synth riff and layers it with darker emotions. Her voice is self-assured and prophetic as she repeats the phrase, "Soon you'll realize." The song brims with potential energy before we are snapped back to reality with the final line, the realization: "This was all in vain."
I hope not, because this EP makes me feel as if I'm on the cusp of a vast universe, and as the Vermont music scene reemerges post-pandemic, I'm excited to see Hoffman making a fresh home within it.
Bound by This is available on all major streaming services, and the vinyl is for sale at dutchexperts.bandcamp.com. Dutch Experts plays at the Stone Church in Brattleboro on Sunday, March 19.