Matt Hill has made a name for himself as Umberto for his subtle exploration of the legacy of horror movie soundtracks via shifting melodic patterns that owe as much to pop as Goblin. This, of course, has led him to be conflated with the swelling ranks of “hypnagogic pop” acts, something exacerbated perhaps by his presence on that sub-genre’s flagship label, Not Not Fun. He returns to the label for Confrontations, a dramatic shift from both his breakout release, Prophecy of the Black Widow, and follow-up, Night Has a Thousand Screams.
Prophecy of the Black Widow was dominated by the spirit of vintage Italian horror, from Dario Argento’s Technicolor terror to the splattery gore of Lucio Fulci, but the synth heavy doom-prog of composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti was intercut with murky drum machine beats and woozy pop melodies. It led to a sort of schizophrenic musical strand: not quite film soundtrack, not quite pop, and, to these ears, it wasn’t an entirely successful exercise, especially when compared to the authentically unsettling music of Failing Lights or Nate Young’s Demons. On Confrontations, Hill has turned to the imagery of sci-fi horror, the cover art clearly echoing creepy alien invasion movies like Body Snatchers and They Live. Indeed, the latter film’s director John Carpenter is a clear influence, for his scores effectively pioneered the potential of lo-fi synths and electronic percussion creating evocative musical accompaniments to horror and sci-fi.
Confrontations, however, doesn’t feel like an actual soundtrack, or even a pastiche of one, as opposed Umberto’s previous albums. Instead, whilst there is a vague semi-narrative strain running throughout, Confrontations is best appreciated as a bloody good dance album. “Night Fantasy” opens the album in style, with loping bass synth rolling under glossy undulating synth patterns and minimalist electronic snare beats. The overall effect may be futuristic, but rather than merely echoing sci-fi soundtracks, instead what springs to mind are the best outfits from Germany’s Kompakt label, such as The Field and Wolfgang Voigt. There’s a warmth underneath the detached synth lines and nearly every track, especially the aforementioned “Night Fantasy” and its follow-up, the disco-tinted “Initial Revelation,” which is all swirling synths and monomaniacal beats, would function superbly in a club alongside those doyens of European tech-house. “Confrontation” sees Hill relax the pace somewhat, and drop in a ghostly sampled choir, bringing it closer to his earlier work, but it still overflows with sweeping synths and oscillating sequencers. Only the arrhythmic “Dead Silent Morning” and the tempo-shifting epic “The Summoning” feel like scores, in a Ballardian style Gary Numan and John Foxx would have loved back in 1981.
Umberto, like many a “hypnagogic pop/hauntology” act, seemed to me increasingly obsolete as the genre’s 2010 heyday receded further from view; even the Ghost Box crew struggle to garner the same enthusiasm as before. Confrontations throws that notion into the ditch, building expertly on Hill’s previous work as a soundtrack impersonator/jester (“The Summoning” is so evocative as to produce visions of soaring UFOs descending on the world’s population), but moves into new realms where these affectations collide with the dancefloor with so much confidence, it’s a wonder he didn’t try this before. I am usually loath to use words like “triumph”, but Confrontations is damn close: it’s atmospheric, infectious and enjoyable. I can’t really praise it higher than that.