Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport at ten: winners of the noise olympics

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Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport

Fuck Button’s second album has just turned ten and Getintothis’ Matthew Eland remembers their unlikely appearance at the 2012 Olympics.

When we’re finally plunged into the post-Brexit dystopia and the only form of entertainment is fighting each other for strips of rusty rat flesh, we’ll at least be able to look back with fondness on Britain’s finest cultural moment of the twenty-first century: Fuck Buttons getting played at the Olympics opening ceremony.

Okay, so there’s an element of hyperbole in that opening statement.

The tendency among some on the left to paint the 2012 London Olympics as some kind of tolerant utopia has been much satirised, ignoring as it does some of the controversy at the time: the cost, the security issues, the whole G4S thing, as well as the broader social circumstances such a viewpoint obscures.

But for me, listening to Surf Solar and Olympians soundtrack a performance celebrating Shakespeare, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Beatles, the Empire Windrush, J.K. Rowling, Tim Berners-Lee, and most importantly Mr Bean, all the while sticking a finger in the eye of Jeremy Hunt by saluting the NHS, really did feel like a big moment.

Not bad for a relatively obscure electronic-music act with a stupid name.

Fuck Buttons’ first record, Street Horrrsing, came out in 2008. It’s feels odd now that the follow-up, Tarot Sport, was only released 18 months later, given the long time since we last heard anything from the duo.

I resisted Fuck Buttons for a long time. Then as now, I get a lot of new music tips from the Drowned in Sound message boards, and the impression I got was that they were a pair of too-cool-for-school scensters (remember when that was what hipsters were called?), after the fashion of Animal Collective.

Plus, there’s their name. Their terrible, terrible name, one designed probably to prohibit the kind of success they ended up having.

But this, of course, was before I’d heard any of their music.

It was the fact that they’d been produced by John Cummings of Mogwai that got my attention, and the first track of Street Horrrsing that sealed the deal. Sweet Love for Planet Earth is a slow, twinkling jewel of a song, one that builds into a beautiful wall of euphoric noise.

The post-rock influence was there, as was the volume. It was unusual to me personally to be so into a tune that eschewed the usual guitar/bass/drums setup, and certainly made me more open-minded about music in general.

The rest of the album was decent, but didn’t pierce the shadowy cavern of my heart quite as much. In addition, I didn’t see what direction they could take their sound in.

With such a limited palette, I could only see them going into ambient territory.

Flash forward to 2009. A car journey on the way to Ten Years of ATP with Baron Farg and the editor of this very website. And Tarot Sport got put on.

Surf Solar starts with twinkling electronics, in much the same way as Sweet Love for Planet Earth. Then come other elements: echoing primal call patterns, swerving bleeps, alien signals blasted through wormholes like Jodie Foster in Contact.

Then the beat: a steady, poised thud. Pristine notes bounce around. A scratchy pattern flanges. The textures continue to build even after the customary fuzz-bass synth line kicks in.

It’s hazy and morning-like, but also with a squinting determination and a furrowed brow. Something almost noble. And then the big synth line hits.

This vibe of defiance and grace is carried through the album, almost in spite of the instrumentation’s violence.

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Olympicans is a hopeful, elegiac stride through adversity, as affecting as Mogwai at their best, with a plinky keyboard line in the mid-section before the fuzz comes back in.

The album artwork sums it up well. We’re high above the clouds, almost on the edge of space, with multiplying hands weaving geometric patterns.

It’s not all beauty though. Phantom Limb is a skulking, swirling tetchy little number. Rough Steez is an industrial, enterprising glitchfest.

By and large though, these are exceptions. The Libson Maru is a pulsing marching tune. Space Mountain is overwhelming, soaring, anthemic, almost a false ending to the album before the last track.

Flight of the Feathered Serpent is dancier and more celebratory, with a lead line that almost sounds like an electric guitar. Everything drops out at the mid-point bar the basic beat for some pneumatic, whirring spirites to gambol around before the song picks up its central thread.

It ends on a single white note, which degrades into silence.

There are many things to love about Tarot Sport. First and foremost is that each of its seven songs is an absolute banger.

But this album’s real strength is how it sounds on a pair of headphones. Tarot Sport is so immersive, so total, that it completely blocks out everything else.

There’s something inspiringly solipsistic about it. Its monolithic majesty is transporting and transformative. It turns the mundane and the quotidian into the glorious.

You could be anywhere – on the bus, striding home down Smithdown Road after a day washing dishes, dodging drunks in Concert Square – and Tarot Sport would give you an impenetrable force field, make you the hero of your own story in an oblivious universe.

In hindsight, I was doing a lot of growing up in 2009, and Tarot Sport was a welcome refuge. It was a glimpse of infinity to lose myself in.

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Fuck Buttons’ third album, Slow Focus, was released in 2013. If pushed, I’d be inclined to say that’s even better than Tarot Sport.

It’s an aggressive, John Carpenter-esque voyage through interstellar space. The hip-hop influence is brought to the fore, and paved the way for Benjamin John Power to take his Blanck Mass side project into its current full-time guise.

He and fellow Fuck Button Andrew Hung continue to have solo success, but both remain noncommital about whether we’ll see Fuck Buttons again.

My own guess is that their current geographical distance prohibits the necessary immersion and experimentation that goes into making these records. If we do have another Fuck Buttons album, I’d expect a change of approach.

In the meantime, we can console ourselves with Blanck Mass, and with Hung’s excellent work on the Greasy Strangler soundtrack and with Beth Orton, among others.

And, of course, with Tarot Sport.

Like with all the best music, it transports me back to those years between 2009 and 2012. It reminds me of being on the 86, of striding home down Smithdown Road after a day washing dishes, of dodging drunks in Concert Square. Of moving to London, and of being back in Liverpool on the day of the Olympics opening ceremony.

And of me trying to explain to everyone what a Fuck Button was, and no one understanding what I was talking about.

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