On Carbon, his first album in four years, JB Dunckel suggests that technology might save the world. Born out of the improvisational shows he performed in 2020 just before the COVID-19 global pandemic happened -- and the abundance of studio time he had during lockdowns -- Carbon pairs its heavy subject matter with zero-gravity sounds, resulting in contemplative, largely instrumental tracks with the intricacy of sound paintings. These pieces have more tension and release than 2018's comparatively idyllic H+. Alternating between pulsing electronics and soaring riffs, "Corporate Sunset" captures the volatility of late-stage capitalism. "Zombie Park," one of the few tracks with vocals, muses on a park near Dunckel's residence where the homeless congregate with a mournful beauty that recalls The Virgin Suicides. Not long before making Carbon, Dunckel reaffirmed his chops as a composer with his César Award-nominated score for the film Summer of 85, and pieces such as the stately finale "Natura Principia Musica" exemplify the blend of precision and emotion within all of his work with a filmic flair. As on H+, Carbon harks back to Air's work more frequently than the projects Dunckel pursued immediately after the iconic duo called it quits in 2012. Echoing Talkie Walkie's soothing blend of chromatic percussion and electronics, the Zen clarity of "Cristal Mind" provides a breather from the album's darker moments. Carbon's fusion of technology and sensuality also continues the legacy of Dunckel's work with Air, whether he ponders a sexual revolution sparked by an alien invasion on "Sex UFO" (perhaps the most apt description of what his music sounds like yet) or drafts Au Revoir Simone's Heather D'Angelo to imbue "Space"'s existential meditations with haunting grace. The closest Carbon comes to a call to action is "Dare," a piece of eerie sci-fi pop where robotic vocals enumerate humanity's failings, then implore listeners to "Dare to be more/hope for the better." More often, Dunckel reminds his audience of how beautiful progress and possibilities can be, as on the gleaming opening track "Spark." A timely reflection of its era that is also resolutely true to Dunckel's body of work, Carbon serves as a reminder that there's more to his music than aesthetics.
by Heather Phares