Cultfever Shows Early Promise

After 30 seconds of vaguely electronic noise, a cathartic explosion of synthesizers teetering on the edge of abstraction ignites a propulsive yet understated rhythm section. Through it all cuts a female voice—here whispering sensually, there defiantly ushering the song through its bridge and exhorting the chorus to begin. This is “Knew You Well,” the debut single and opener for the first, self-titled album by Brooklyn-based duo Cultfever. The band is on the verge of something, and on the strength of this early material, they’re poised to become a very big deal indeed.

“We’re really pleased with the way it’s been going,” says J. Peter Durniak, the group’s main instrumentalist and the man behind Cultfever’s dense, noisy soundscapes. “We were really happy to get the album out.” Tamara Jafar ’09, the lead singer, shares his satisfaction. “We had our heads buried under the ground for two years working on this,” she says, and the intensity of this process is apparent in the record’s layered production values and polished final result. Listeners might be skeptical of yet another New York-based indie-pop band, but Cultfever’s focus, post-punk vibe, and Jafar’s distinctive vocal performance suggest a band ready to break apart from a saturated genre.

Their influences might be easily traceable—as Durniak readily admits his influences—but his description of every song as a melting pot is apt. You can detect the currently in-vogue ’80s British New Wave, but this now popular sound is nuanced by slivers of trip-hop, shoegaze, and weirder post-punk influences from bands such as The Chameleons and Echo & the Bunnymen. All of this adds up to a surprisingly fresh package: an appropriate adherence to traditional pop hooks and structures refracted through a self-awareness that steers clear of navel gazing. Blessedly, the band have also managed to avoid the po-faced portentousness that other modern groups of this type seem unable to shake—think Interpol and The Killers. As Jafar says, “we want you to feel a sense of sincerity, but maybe also a sense of humor.”

The band’s commitment to live performance is also encouraging. They relate their experience of working together, and the bond they feel writing music, to the connection between themselves and their audience when onstage. “We interact in a way that feels good, and we get to do it live,” Jafar says. The relationship between the two of them is also crucial to their success: you can feel it in the way guitar and voice seem almost fused as they kick in simultaneously on “Strangenecks,” or in the space Jafar leaves for a synth solo on “Duress.” “We think a lot of the same things on the same song,” Durniak confides. “The style emerged while we were working together organically.”

Jafar also mentions that the experience of being at Harvard played an important role in getting her to this point. Although she was not heavily involved in music while at school, Jafar identifies the broader environment of intellectual activity and curiosity as having had a major influence on her musical sensibilities. For Harvardians interested in seeing Cultfever play live, the band hopes to play a gig in Boston in early 2012. In the meantime, however, they are waiting to see how the album is received. “Both of us got into this conscious of the market we were entering,” Jafar says cautiously, and you can detect the band trying to downplay expectations, to disbelieve their own hype. With a winning formula like this, though, it should only be a matter of time before they go stratospheric.

—Staff writer Caleb J. Thompson can be reached at calebthompson@college.harvard.edu.

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