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Mapping Haunted Spaces with Love Theme’s Self-Titled Debut on Alter Records

by Ben Hudgins

My admittedly one-sided musical love affair with Alex Zhang Hungtai began in 2014 when I stumbled upon Dirty Beaches’s masterful Badlands release. Its lo-fi, retro approach pulled me right in and made me an instant fan. As I am wont to do, I dutifully went out and investigated all of their material, discovering yet another world of diverse and experimental sound.

But then tragedy struck.

Mere months after my epiphany, Hungtai abruptly announced the project’s dissolution with the release of their final album, Stateless. I was understandably heartbroken, though the completionist in me breathed a sigh of relief as Dirty Beaches was fairly prolific, and catching up was proving expensive.

Three years passed with nothing but an occasional blog post.

But then rumors began to spread—shadowy whispers that Hungtai was back in the saddle and masterminding a global musical collaboration. And then those rumblings proved true when he announced his new project, Love Theme. Tantalizing preview snippets only hinted, but the self-titled debut is everything that I’d hoped for.

Alex Zhang Hungtai

All the lo-fi glory of Dirty Beaches remains, but the vintage rock-and-roll and blues worship of their less experimental albums is all but gone. Instead, it’s been replaced with a darker, more sinister approach. Most of the pieces are experiments in drone and subtle feedback, but the most striking aspect is the heavy use of saxophone—in this case, two of them. They add a mournful, distant quality to most of the tracks but do put a viciously snarling edge on the album’s most “rock” outing, the three-part “Docklands / Yaumatei / Plum Garden.” One tends to trot out the standard John Zorn reference in these cases, but there’s something different going on here. Hungtai (yes, he plays saxophone too) and Austin Milne channel a more Middle-Eastern vibe, sounding more like a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan backing track than anything Naked City ever cranked out.

The official Bandcamp page for the project makes reference to “the record’s sullen ambience,” and this is a perfect description. The pictures that it paints are all gloomy and claustrophobic, and while there is an otherworldly feel to it (those haunting saxophones again), the album is still grounded in the murk as trudging, mechanical percussion keeps things from spiraling all the way off into the dark. There are times when it is a difficult listen, not because of any extremity of sound or volume (this isn’t exactly harsh noise, after all), but because it’s often subtly unnerving and sometimes downright alien. Which are, of course, perfect reasons to give Love Theme a listen, as it’s a treat for anyone who appreciates unusual, challenging music.