- The opening minute of Topiary appears to find Xeno & Oaklander's sound unchanged. The duo's old drum machines and synthesisers once again form a conduit for their ice-cold chemistry. Liz Wendelbo's blank-faced, Euro-accented vocals continue to recall the automatons of minimal wave and synth-pop obscurities. Moments later, during the first major key change of the soaring opening track, "Marble," the hallmarks of their angular, rain-slicked sound suddenly flicker into full colour.
Xeno & Oaklander's move from their Brooklyn home studio into a professional space created by Talking Heads alumni Tom Tom Club seems reflected in the spread out feel on Topiary. They exploit a wider spectrum of synthesiser capabilities than ever before, from juddering industrial sequences to instrumental and beatless compositions that point to an appreciation of incidental soundtrack music. Topiary also reveals a talent for warmly approaching the songcraft of electronic pop. Showcased dazzlingly in "Marble," every pause and reprise feels well-earned—each time the melody is unleashed by the chorus it swoops a little higher—and the crescendo finish is in no danger of being gloomy.
Wendelbo is left to her own devices as the frontperson, and in the absence of the usual boy-girl vocal dynamic with Sean McBride, she teases some subtly different personas out of her vocals. At its weightiest, the total mass of Wendelbo's voice is still comparable to a cloud of mist. Her feathery edges and ageless quality complement the majority of Topiary's vocal tracks, whether it be the focal point or woven in as a tonal instrument. "Virtues And Vice" beautifully places her at the centre of a widescreen view of shadowy, detailed synth-pop, which progresses at a slow pace despite its fidgety tempo. "Baroque," on the other hand, aims for bold, dark romanticism and falls short into schlock horror. The song's powdery hi-hats, dramatic chamber-pop atmosphere and sing-song verses call to mind the cheesiest '80s music video clichés: dry ice, backlighting and slow-motion birds flying against a night sky.
Topiary's instrumental pieces work as mood enhancers and cinematic pause, particularly on the two title tracks. The album's remaining high points are on songs like "Marble," where ruthless editing has been applied to the uniformity of the duo's previous albums. With its prominent bassline and measured doses of rapid fire drums, "Palms" owes a lot to New Order's "Blue Monday." "Worlding Worlds" is such a classy and understated take on electronic pop that Junior Boys ought to quiver with envy—its sparse delicacy is precise and clean, simmering and intensifying incrementally towards its symphonic conclusion. In the same way that "Worlding Worlds" follows expansive and hopeful songwriting into a moment of pop brilliance, Topiary benefits when Xeno & Oaklander let go of their dystopian aesthetic and choose emotion over mood.
02. Virtues And Vice
08. Worlding Worlds
09. Topiary II