In the past, Raleigh's Blursome and Carrboro's Secret Boyfriend have had little in common. Yes, they are both monikers for individual electronic musicians—Blursome for the young producer Lara Wehbie, Secret Boyfriend for likely the area's most devoted experimental impresario, Ryan Martin. And both acts have proven vital to their respective scenes, with Blursome becoming a linchpin of the area's beat-based upstarts and Secret Boyfriend serving as a magnet for innumerable strains of local weirdness.
Musically, however, they have felt mostly like strangers. On her grand 2014 debut, Heavy Resting, Wehbie dug deep between the grooves of dubstep, focusing on the pillowed sides of the bass until the space between the meters became a gorgeous, swirling expanse of samples and static. Martin, meanwhile, has sent shards of songs through all manner of effects and exorcisms, shocking his tunes until they turned into strange, disfigured beauties.
You might have spotted some of the same influences and impulses in the music of both—like the need, for instance, to hold the listener just beyond arm's length, with the creator standing in the shadow of the creation. That was the limit of the link. Yet, on each of their new albums, Blursome and Secret Boyfriend take steps in opposite directions to arrive in very similar, wonderfully secluded places. The moves are excellent looks for each artist, representing new individual benchmarks.
The six tracks of Secret Boyfriend's Memory Care Unit feel haunted, as though a ghost sighs through the machines that Martin manipulates. He gives the specter flesh during "The Singing Bile," an eerily oscillating drone that suggests the slow fade of William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops. Backed by a drum machine that hits and drifts so casually it seems as if someone has forgotten it's on, "Stripping at the Nail" feels like exit music for the Twin Peaks roadhouse. Martin's languid voice drapes around a refracted guitar line like a heavy blanket, both resting on a pillow of synthesizers so soft they seem to be breaking down.
Even when these songs lift from those doldrums, as with the radiant melody of "Memorize Them Well" or the relatively peppy "Little Jammy Center," they feel like solitary hymns for private moments—curtains drawn, lights low, atmosphere muted. It's easy to get lost in Martin's reveries, to succumb to the music's sway like it's a muscle relaxant.
The eight tracks of Blursome's Age, on the other hand, drive straight to the beat in ways Wehbie never has. "Pretty Voice" pushes into a jarring four-on-the-floor rhythm before Wehbie parcels it into fractions. The tricky stutters and samples are strong enough to intoxicate. The repeating cycles of "Not Like This" harness jungle and trance in one brief, ebullient phrase. Even the functionally named "Intro" sorts through a web of tangled-and-mangled sources to find and emphasize a menacing, robotic meter. It swallows the voices around it every time it arrives. These are the most club-ready sequences of Wehbie's admittedly small discography, and you imagine them vibrating the walls of a big room, not the shells of puny home speakers.
But Blursome has never been a mere beat junkie, and these songs' accessories also seem like shutters to the world, or ways to shut attention out even as booming bass invites listeners in. The samples and the static, the effects and the echoes mute the maul. Wehbie has always emphasized the tension between electrifying beats and engulfing textures. Age amplifies that contrast like never before, allowing us to listen in on the private debates of a brilliantly bifurcated mind.
The results of Age and Memory Care Unit don't unite Secret Boyfriend or Blursome any more than their pasts and their geographical proximity already have. And their rendezvous in distant corners of the same gray space here isn't tantamount to a trend or indicative of some larger shift. Rather, these serendipitous albums deliver the sounds of two solo artists climbing inside stylistic decisions and walling themselves off with their implications. It's a joy to join them both—at least for now—for the most transfixing moments of their careers.