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Reeling in the Real: Pale Eyes’ sweatshop Reviewed

Pale Eyes - Sweatshop

Ben McCarthy and Lisa J. Smith, formerly of Archivist (see my earlier review), have formed a new project called Pale Eyes, producing a debut album called sweatshop. It contains songs for the new age of anxiety, in which we feel the claustrophobia of globalization, and the disgust of complicity. Frequently confronting you with ugly feelings, Pale Eyes produce electronic violence; and broken hip-hop, time of fractured joint, when it won’t be long before we all come tumbling down. Their music and lyrics also perform a vivisection on the heaving mass of human need, and its peculiar anatomy of melancholy. sweatshop is comparable, and every bit as important and striking, as The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. Pale Eyes’ debut is about futility, but also about facing up to that pointlessness. The heavy use of sampling and synth processing stitches together a whole from the disparate, leaving frayed edges that threaten to unravel, embodying the failure to repeat.

The opening track “waves & radiation” is a plunderphonic sound collage of tension, starting with a metronome and ending with “if I didn’t have my art, I would be madder than I am.” It is musically reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and neatly introduces you to the ideologies working within the entire record, including memories of real protest, and the mental and emotional implications of our current world order.

It’s followed by “kltr kma,” the title of which makes me think of Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma.” It features an earworm chorus, and the breaks mirror the cracking of the pretence of the human pose. McCarthy alternates between rapid-fire wordplay and elastic, cyclical vocals that ply your brain, while Lido Pimienta moans behind him in a fractious, urgent way that reminds me of Sue Denim. McCarthy sings:

These bloody needs the body’s fee;
you must be hungry just to be.
It was the sun that taught your lungs to breathe
for a mesh of metaphor with a mouth for the meat. . . .

So take the fist and take this kiss,
and take our common helplessness,
cause the very very body you resist
is the flesh upon which all this subsists.

Pales Eyes continue to interrogate this schizophrenic human reality that belies the figurative sense of a universal, whole humanity in songs such as “empathy exhaustion (also sprach Sarahthustra)” and “the consolation of action.” A collaboration with McCarthy’s sister, Sarah (who I assume to be the Sarah of the final track “Sarah says”), “empathy exhaustion” is all sharp dissonance tied together with a weaving double helix of a melody line, carried ethereally by Pimienta. The lyrics are begging for release from the fatigue of a debt-laden, neoliberal existence, cleverly tying moral debt to the general debtfare lives of this generation. This track is followed by “the consolation of action,” which takes its title from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, an excellent argument against the idea of Humanism, and its unwavering belief in redemption through progress. (Of course, Pale Eyes is not the first band to draw on Gray’s work; Vanilla Swingers crafted a concept album inspired by it, and the Manic Street Preachers have also referenced Gray in recent years.) In this track, as in Gray’s book, there’s a friction and fear of letting go of the “need” for action and changing the world. The idea is one that I feel is at the crux of Gray’s thesis, one which I return to again and again: “The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.” The attempt to reconcile this possibility for a new paradigm with our own reality leads to additional feelings of lack and guilt. The sacred profanity of this wrecked psychological space blurs into poetry:

wake up the grace has fled
amplified daily dread
first day of the rest of your life
breaking across your head

have you been misinformed?
do you really not know what you do?
what were you crying for?
sweatshop livestock auto-tune?

Pimienta’s vocals are primal and fragile as the minimal sampled background sputters and clatters behind her. Lagging with the weight of conflicting culpabilities, McCarthy languidly sums up the earlier verses with the brilliant phrase “porno kingdom cum,” and then debt anxiety creeps in again as he follows it with “we cannot afford this wealth.”

There are more efforts to ease this cognitive dissonance and its discontents. “figure/ground” is achingly beautiful and soulful, easily oscillating between a foreground of smooth woodwind sound and a background of stuttering, glitchy beats liberated from Radiohead. Trapped between order and entropy, McCarthy’s vocals are striving yet dropping at the end of each line, lapping at and slowly eroding his own footing. In “philosophka,” access, and the choices it presumably offers, only succeeds in smothering you with the ghosts of the “what if” and the circling paranoia of always missing something. Embattled by expectations, McCarthy quietly sings, “Spoiled for choice don’t make me free, this is a necessity.”

In “little rain,” apocalyptic fervor dissipates into an honest message to a future generation, in this particular case, an infant son. McCarthy’s vocals are soothing in their melancholic glissandos, as the synth sounds drip and drop, rolling like tears from beneath a blindfold. It’s a refreshing conception of “the child,” resisting the simple purity/innocence/hope for the future trope; McCarthy sings, “I’m disinclined to see you for the dream you are, little boy, for I know what dreams can become.” The further lament of “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies” spins through slices of distortion as it bisects, dissects, intersects, intertexts, sexes, vexes. There is only a superficial catharsis. The self-aware-monster-inside motif, similar to that of Kevin Barnes’s more recent material, does not provide relief or a way forward. “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies,” along with the track “Trust,” warps Marvin Gaye references into a brittle rendering of passionate resignation.

Rather than a desensitizing lyrical crutch, the extended use of “fuck” on five out of the eleven songs displays a nuanced polyvalence, placing carnality on a parallel plane with ruin, hopelessness, frustration, manipulation, and hostility. You get the feeling that we are all being endlessly violated by circumstance, and that sex and intimacy are just other parts of the broken system. Many of the comedown moments in sweatshop feel like coiling up in an empty, post-coitus position after being consentingly fucked by capitalism.

sweatshop sounds like inner war, the struggling and juggling under the weight of hypocritical, perhaps nonsensical, guilt. It asks the question of how we can truly protest, especially when the technologies that allow for pockets of protest to form around the world are the same that devastate the environment, exploit others’ labour, and depend on the corporate states. As we all move toward immaterial labour, playbour, affective labour, etc., which is often overlooked in terms of capitalistic value, we are ever more implicated. At the heart of this first question, is another one: What do we truly “need”? Perfection is impossible, happiness is temporary, and progress is a myth. Is seeing the world rightly enough? I’m inclined to think so, especially as I see despair as more productive than joy, and depressive people as having a firmer grip on reality than anyone else. When all of the manufactured stabilizers, like the nation state, religion, science, time, Humanism, and monogamous relationships, are removed, there could perhaps be an opening for a new model; however, as sweatshop intimates, we will probably make new fictions to cope. At the same time that so many British musicians are exploring the failed utopias of modernism and social welfare, the Canadian Pale Eyes have moved in a different, less nostalgic, way to try to take up the same challenges. They have also succeeded in penetrating my general numbness, making me feel bad, and then making me wonder why I should feel that way.

sweatshop is released on August 6 via Bandcamp. See the Pale Eyes website for further details and updates.

kltr kma – Pale Eyes

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Planned Obsolescence and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Shut Up and Play the Hits and the Story of LCD Soundsystem

Shut Up and Play the Hits

After seeing the LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits for the first time in the dark of Cinematheque last week, I can see why audiences at SXSW danced in the aisles and applauded each concert segment. The Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern film, which records James Murphy and Co.’s last performance at Madison Square Garden in 2011, utilizes the immensity of sound and camera shots to immerse you so deeply in the music that you forget you’re not actually at a live show. You feel every slow motion bounce and crush of the crowd and every shake of atomized perspiration from the band and fans alike. LCD Soundsystem’s signature locked grooves become deliciously long dance parties as the band rocks and hustles in equal measure. The film even captures that numb moment that comes after a monumental gig where you can barely move your adrenaline-drained legs, blinking in the house lights made hazy by the last vestiges of dry ice drifting to the rafters like the gunsmoke of a particularly intense battle, or the incense in a particularly mind-altering ritual. Despite the mesmerizing atmosphere of this footage, the film captures something else quite specific to LCD Soundsystem. When Murphy’s hands come down to instigate the descent of a giant disco ball for “Us V. Them,” his face is filled with a beatific satisfaction that somehow mocks its own self-assured performance. It’s as if he cannot let himself get too earnest about the enormity of the event he’s created. It’s like he’s thinking about how much he’s orchestrated this. It’s a show, and a documentary for that matter, that draws attention to its own obviousness and intentions.

A pre-farewell Chuck Klosterman interview provides a thematic framework for the film as it is interspersed between concert performances and over the scenes of Murphy’s post-LCD Soundsystem mundanity, adding meaning and depth to scenes of Murphy shaving, making coffee, rolling about on his swivel chair, staring out windows, and walking his French bulldog. Offstage, Murphy’s spectrum of emotions seems to be comprised of wry, bemused, or asleep. These down moments provide a contrast that makes the concert portions buzz with a preternatural quality. The continuous rise and fall of the energy heightens the effect of both moods whilst commenting on its own meta-state. At the beginning of the interview, there’s a great moment of doubling self-awareness: when Klosterman asks if it’s okay if he records this interview, Murphy replies with “sure, do you mind if I record this interview?” The film has been most often compared with The Band’s The Last Waltz, but this final recorded performance can also be seen as the death of Ziggy Stardust without the loophole. At one point in the interview, Murphy does mention Bowie as an untouchable idol, whilst casting himself as the everyman, greying anti-hero. Klosterman interjects by saying that Murphy has become an idol in spite of, and perhaps just as much because of, his commonplace, unglamourous image. His is still a performance, which I think attracts just as much scrutiny to itself as Bowie’s satin and tat. Klosterman quite rightly points out Murphy’s most prominent characteristic: self-consciousness.

The LCD Soundsystem oeuvre is dominated by the meaninglessness of repetition in the postmodern condition or the self-aware ennui and pose of New York City parties. The idea behind this last performance and its deliberate self-documentation isn’t that far away from a Flickr stream of ironic Polaroids. From penning the so-called hipster anthem “Losing My Edge,” to raiding older musical references in the manner of a one-man cultural capital bazaar, to creating a “pretentious version” of “Yeah,” to receiving a full discography analysis by Pitchfork, LCD Soundsystem is of the early-twenty-first-century hipster moment. Some may argue that the seppuku of LCD Soundsystem coincides with the “death of the hipster.” However and whenever the hipster may or may not die, it seemed to be born in the socioeconomic and cultural stew, which includes the rise of the so-called “creative class” of a late capitalism running on its own fumes, the dissatisfied middle class’s realization of its own stagnation and uncertain footing at the turn of the millennium, and the exhausting infinite present in the Internet age of globalized connectivity. The hipster is a hyper-controlled performance of supposedly empty signifiers, Baudrillardian simulacra in impossibly tight, ultimately impotent, trousers. The hipster is self-aware, building an artificial authenticity or an authentic artifice in an attempt to preclude taste judgements and clichés that move at the speed of light. In the accelerated proving of credentials, hipsters eat themselves as much as pop does. They are part of a self-defeating identity group that fosters belonging by denying belonging to the group. In recognizing hipsters, you are somehow already implicated in their miasmic stigma. What happens when you ironize arguably the most ironic subculture? James Murphy has come to embody the anti-hipster hipster, or an aging hipster, which seems automatically to negate hipsterdom, in which novelty and youth are its defining qualities, even if the novelty is nearly always filtered through retro lenses. Murphy and his band concept are a hipster paradox. He is ironic about pretension and knowing about his knowingness. His seemingly ironic detachment appears to come from a seen-it-all-before world weariness because he is actually older, not because he could Google everything on a phone. I think it’s too easy to apply the hipster tag, which gets bandied about a fair bit; however, I’m starting to think that the dissonance I feel about LCD Soundsystem, and by extension, Shut Up and Play the Hits, is related to Murphy’s ethos, which allows for the simultaneous existence of the romantic nostalgia of the person who thinks too much and the cynical retro of the hipster who has access to too much. He creates music infused with timelessness and faddishness, two sides of the same youth ideology.

That tension is perhaps the magic of the film and the LCD Soundsystem story: mythologizing the demythologizing. You can view Murphy in a context other than hipsterdom, including the power of music fandom. Focused, meticulous people are also often the most obsessive-compulsive fans/critics; think of some of Murphy’s musical heroes, like David Bowie and The Smiths, who were also scrupulously controlled in their performances, images, and artistic “packages.” Murphy is musically referential as Morrissey was lyrically referential, retaining a fastidious interest in presentation down to the Hatful of Hollow blue used on the cover of This Is Happening. Murphy is a compelling performer in his own idiosyncratic right. The concert footage of Shut Up and Play the Hits reminded me just how much I love his sardonic half-talking bits and his wild, desperate yelps that become frantic leaps into hysterical falsetto. I couldn’t keep my legs from bouncing during the “Homosapien”-aping “North American Scum,” which featured back-up shout-chanting from members of The Arcade Fire, and the infinite rock-out of LCD Soundsystem’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire” melted me into my movie theatre chair. On the related flipside to scenester party anthems like these, the live entity of LCD Soundsystem brings the same ardent presence to the low-key melancholy. As I feel both the anxiety and relief of aging and mortality myself, I’m particularly drawn to these songs along with Murphy’s comments in the film about his fears and needs as time moves on. The bittersweetness that pervades songs like “All My Friends,” “Someone Great,” and concert-closer “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is connected to a sense of loss and the relentlessness of time. “All My Friends,” which creates one of the biggest moments of the documentary, takes the insistent piano of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and strings it out into a nostalgic middle-age wasteland that is both triumphant and tired.

The crux of the film comes close to the end of the Klosterman interview. He posits that people are remembered for their successes but defined by their failures, and pushes Murphy to articulate what LCD Soundsystem’s biggest failure will be. After much evasion, it transpires that Murphy thinks their biggest failure may be stopping. In that admission, he turns his canny preclusion into wistful heartbreak.

As Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” kicks in at the credits, I couldn’t help but smile at how even this choice was perfectly orchestrated. The song is at once so terribly funny and so terribly sad, which seems to sum up Murphy’s persona quite neatly. It’s a self-fulfilling failure narrative and pre-emptive break-up strike with those brilliant synth honks that sound like a clown’s nose. The theme of borrowed time and planned beginnings and endings is more than apt for the LCD Soundsystem story: “This is one scene that’s going to be played my way.” At the same time, it’s worth bearing in mind that Klosterman has already articulated the fact James Murphy can’t completely control others’ perception and level of engagement with what he does. In the end, perhaps in spite of Murphy’s attempts at detachment, LCD Soundsystem was clearly not a meaningless pose. If only because of that weeping teenage boy in the last shot of the film. Shut Up and Play the Hits shows that you can actually dance yourself clean notwithstanding the elision of vowels in hipster electronic vernacular. This is not a film for aloof head bobbing. Murphy and his backing band played the hits and they spoke louder than the best laid plans.

The Shut Up and Play the Hits DVD set is available on October 9.

Dance Yrself Clean – LCD Soundsystem

Jump Into the Fire – LCD Soundsystem

New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down – LCD Soundsystem

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Many Poetic Returns: Parts One Through Three of Jack Hayter’s The Sisters of St. Anthony Single Series

Jack Hayter The Sisters of St Anthony

In this post-everything digital age of endless archives and curation, is it possible still to lose things? Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and it is to him that lo-fi folk musician Jack Hayter turns for his subscription series of monthly singles The Sisters of St. Anthony. To look at him in a perhaps more positive manner, St. Anthony really becomes representative of memory. He aids you in remembering where those lost things are, he is meant to help you recover things. And these wistful, often visceral, emotions suit Hayter well. His vocals are a bit broken and worn, and since his first release on Audio Antihero, the wonky, wonderful Sucky Tart EP, he has been pushing the boundaries of folk sounds to continue telling acoustic tales of the sublime mundanity of life. Whilst his first solo album, Practical Wireless released on Absolutely Kosher Records in 2002, was a study in fragility and gentle melody (including a stunning cover of The Only Ones’ “Another Girl Another Planet”), this latest subscription series (or time release capsule of an album) picks up further cues from the ragged edges of Sucky Tart and the fusion of folk and electronic elements found in his work with Dollboy. And of course, Hayter’s knack for storytelling emphasizes the most human of inclinations: remembering in order to make sense of the world and your place in it, recovering in order to recover.

The first song in the series is “The Shackleton,” which is both about a Cold War airplane named after the ill-fated (and let’s face it, ill-pated) explorer Ernest Shackleton, and about the loss of Hayter’s girlfriend from adolescence. Hayter writes of the connection between the distinctive drone of the aircraft and his memories:

…their sound, more than anything, reminds me of being 15…out in the woods with Sally at 4 a.m., with the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction and the wrath of her parents.

It begins with sliding synth noises, but quickly moves into the softness of a nostalgic raconteur. Eventually the song melts into adolescent confessional as Hayter gives a beautiful, plaintive voice to the tragic yet funny machinations of teenagers’ inner dramas; his voice curls and keens like gales trapped in the husks of empty buildings over the lines, “Graham has dumped me/God, I’m so sad/Sure he’s alright for a laugh/Though he’s a bit of a twat.” The musical motif of this section returns as Sally makes a similar, yet poignantly different confession at fifty years old. Cold War tensions and paranoia add a layer of both “Heroes”-like romantic desperation and the bittersweet sadness of unfulfilled futures. (For more beautiful themes of haunting and the Cold War uncanny, track down Dollboy’s instrumental Ghost Stations.)

The second track, “Farewell Jezebel,” starts off with some spare acoustic guitar as Hayter introduces the titular character in a stance of illicit defiance. After the cheeky little line, “We’ve all been had/But no one ever had us quite like you,” the song kicks into a rambling, sunny tribute to a very human character. She may have vomited in her handbag, but she also lived beyond the pithy, “respectful” clichés of memorialization. Hayter’s brilliantly detailed, visually narrative lyrics demonstrate the limits of polite, socially accepted acts of remembrance; as he sings, “No one writes upon a gravestone anything of use.”

The final track of this first quarter of singles is “Sweet JD.” It begins with droplets of electronic sounds over sporadic glitchy percussion and other spasms of instrumentation. As Hayter intones “I’m always missing the beat,” the rhythms and sounds scatter about him like an overturned bag of marbles or a fistful of released balloons. Like an infinitely impossible cowlick, bleeps of synths spring up in unexpected places, yet they complement the soaring chorus of “Sweet John Donne loves you,” which references Donne’s poem of imminent loss, “Stay, O Sweet.” Halfway through the track, Hayter recites ghostly snippets of other Donne quotes about mortality and seizing life as the electronics spider over his voice, nearly choking it. By the time his voice comes back in for the final chorus, the music has risen into a jubilant hymn of love and affirmation of life in spite of all that threatens it.

These first three songs from the series are quite varied stylistically, but they all coax a meaningful presence out of absence, and build moving musical vignettes of retrospect and anticipated spectres. I look forward to the rest of the monthly installments. Is it still possible to lose things? Yes, but Jack Hayter reminds you that loss and forgetfulness can be valuable, too. Thoughts may escape you, but the dearth is necessary as some of the most important thoughts often come back to you as poetry.

Subscribe to the single series at the Audio Antihero Bandcamp page.

I Stole the Cutty Sark – Jack Hayter

Au Lion D’Or – Jack Hayter

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Myxomatosis #6 – ReMyxomatosis

Some favourite remixes, past and present.  Does what it says on the tin, basically.  Enjoy!

Download Myxomatosis #6

Azealia Banks – 212 (Derrick Carter Remix)

Boys Noize – Let’s Buy Happiness (Proxy Remix)

DFA 1979 – Romantic Rights (Marczech Makuziak Remix)

Feist – 1234 (Van She Remix)

Gossip – Standing In The Way Of Control (Le Tigre Remix)

IAMX – Spit It Out (Designer Drugs Remix)

Janelle Monáe – Tightrope (Wondamix)

Le Tigre – Deceptacon (DFA Remix)

Manic Street Preachers – This Joke Sport Severed (Patrick Wolf’s Love Letter To Richey Remix)

Metronomy – The Look (Camo & Krooked Remix)

Robyn – Call Your Girlfriend (Feed Me Remix)

Santigold – You’ll Find A Way (Switch and Sinden Remix)

Simian Mobile Disco – Hustler (Joakim Remix)

Siouxsie – Into a Swan (Weatherall Remix)

Thom Yorke – Black Swan (Cristian Vogel Spare Parts Remix)

 

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A Broken Kind of Paradise: Chromatics’ Kill For Love Reviewed

This, Chromatics’ fourth album, opens with a cool, detached cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” and with this song it’s immediately apparent that Kill For Love is an entirely different prospect from their last album, 2007’s Night Drive.  That record featured a cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, albeit filtered through Chromatics’ distinctive disco- and dream pop-influenced new wave aesthetic, but with Bush’s eccentric pop sensibility retained.  Chromatics’ choice of source material is indeed indicative of the ambition and tone of the albums to which they belong, and as signalled by “Hey Hey, My My”, Kill For Love explores the downtempo, textured, melancholy, and reflective end of their work.  Chromatics, who hail from Portland, are comprised of singer Ruth Radelet, guitarist Adam Miller, drummer Nat Walker, and multi-instrumentalist, producer, and glam rock throwback Johnny Jewel, who obviously wears his influences on his, er…moniker.  Radelet’s disconnected delivery is framed perfectly from the start: her voice bears an honest and world weary weight, yet her detachment emphasizes the isolation of the lyrics and the chilly instrumentation of the music enveloping it.  It is she who makes “Hey Hey, My My” such a success (surprising though it is at first) and sets the tone for the remainder of the next 90 minutes.  Jewel has acknowledged that the band considered releasing Kill For Love as a double album proper, and it’s true that the 16 tracks chosen for inclusion here lead to a sprawling and attention span-challenging single listen of a record, but Kill For Love is truly at its best like this, as a cohesive package, offering musical as well as emotional highs and lows befitting its dramatic and ambitious proportions.

The title track, “Kill For Love” closes the statement of intent that “Hey Hey, My My” opened with the lyrics “Everyone’s got a secret to hide/Everyone is slipping backwards/I can’t remember if I like what I said/I can’t remember it went straight to my head/But I killed for love.”  Shimmering synths and swirling, multitracked guitars offer an emotional counterpart to these thoughts, the music seemingly shifting between past and present in its reverence for the synthy eighties and simultaneous concern for remembering hazy past deeds.  “The Page” is as addictive as any dark, gothy retro synthpop, fusing the literary imagery of ink, writing, and books with the alienation of a dark and dripping cityscape.  The combination of melody, words, and atmosphere culminate intoxicatingly, illustrating perfectly the sadness of nostalgia, comforting and wistfully beautiful in its familiarity.  “Lady” opens with a shuffling synth pulse and is soon filled out with a stuttering counterbeat.  Radelet softly intones gender-defamiliarizing lines like “If I could only call you my lady/Baby I could be your man” while dynamic contrasts and increasing numbers of steadily pulsing percussion, electronics, and a good measure of analogue-reminiscent fuzz round out the mid-tempo groove of this song.

That slightly scratchy quality is carried over into the next track, “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”, but here an alienating processed vocal is featured, making the dystopian lyrics even more sinister.  The words “Spent my life inside this room/And disappeared some more each day/I get so lonely all the time/I try to find my way back home” offer a glimpse into an electronic, highly controlled environment in which nostalgia isn’t an answer but a curse.  The repetitive refrain of “The screen stayed flashing in my mind” and several lengthy seconds of disconnected feedback close the song on an outright menacing note.  “Broken Mirrors” is an example of the textural subtleties Chromatics achieve on their instrumental numbers, in this case the slow burn of layered synths and sheer swatches of guitar creating a gratifyingly long buildup that does sound remarkably like wandering through the city on a sodden, depressed night.

“The Eleventh Hour” is a slight reprieve from the more percussive, beat-driven tracks featured on Kill For Love, offering an austere string-like introduction and melting away into silence before introducing a dark, barely audible pulse that flickers and then fades.  Finally, “The Eleventh Hour” counts down into next song “Running From the Sun”, itself offering the juxtaposition of two piano chords and that processed vocal again.  The bareness of the verses is augmented with drums for the refrain and then makes way for a giddily retro electronic break.  It succeeds in giving this moody, textural piece some welcome humour as well as stylistic reference points.  The simplistic opening figure of “Birds of Paradise” is carried through the song, taking turns with Radelet’s vocal line.  She sings “In the setting sun we flew away/To a broken kind of paradise” while alternating piano and buzzing synthesizers accompany her into that unlikely mixture of reality and utopia.  “A Matter of Time” is not nearly so optimistic, with the words “Cry yourself to sleep again/The past is your only friend tonight/Your life is only a dream tonight/We all cry alone” further cementing the theme of painful reality taking over from dreamlike past.  “At Your Door” offers more harshness: “It’s like we’re all frozen now/Just like ice in a glass.”  This time, though, human companionship does offer some comfort in the form of hope, even though it’s not a solution for the ennui and isolation facing us: “You know love never turns out the way we all plan/But the door is still open so give me your hand.”

A voicemail message is at the literal and metaphorical centre of “There’s a Light Out on the Horizon” and it’s an absolutely haunting reminder of the space and circumstances that separate people, despite the constant connections we make.  It seems to be suggesting that no matter how many people are split up and for whatever reasons, we will continually forge human connections of infinite variety to try and make meaning out of our lives.  At the same time, meaningful connections and relationships are made from endless coincidences and chance encounters.  “The River” closes Kill For Love on an appropriate note: the anonymity, missed encounters, and loneliness of the city are given their full and final due.  As maudlin as these words are, there’s some hope in the final couplet of “The river’s thirst is so unkind/But I’m still here waiting for you.”  An immensely satisfying treatise on the connections between isolation, media, urban landscapes, nostalgia, and lost connections, Kill For Love depicts Chromatics at perhaps the height of their career and most certainly their most powerful and evocative work yet.

“It’s me.  Just wondering if you got my text.  Anyway.  I’m gonna go to bed pretty soon.  I hope you’re okay out there…wherever you are.  Goodnight.  I love you.”

 

Chromatics – The Page

Chromatics – These Streets Will Never Look the Same

Chromatics – Birds of Paradise

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The Re-action of Avant-Nouveau: The Pre New’s Music for People Who Hate Themselves Reviewed

The Pre New - Music for People Who Hate Themselves

As a fan of Earl Brutus, I was excited to hear that Jamie (Jim) Fry, Gordon King, Stuart Borman, and Shinya Hayashida, decided to form a new band, The Pre New, with Laurence Bray and Stuart Weldon. Their debut album, Music for People Who Hate Themselves, was released on April 2, and it covers an astounding amount of musical ground while remaining a cohesive, fascinating record. There’s an arty knowingness to their genre play and topical lyrical content that reminds me of other witty glam fans like Luke Haines and Lawrence (as much as Haines would likely loathe being compared to Lawrence). However, they also retain that trashier glam rock element that reminds me of a band like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. But perhaps due to their arty knowingness and trashy glam, the Pre New recall their earlier incarnation, Earl Brutus, most of all. The band’s description of themselves:

Imagine, for a moment, a modernist decadent block of flats from the 1950s, a work of art, utopian, a design for living. The building becomes rejected, vandalised and defecated in and is nearly ruined by the events and attitudes of the 1970s. Now in the first part of the 21st century it has now been fully refurbished into beautiful expensive designer apartments on sale in Foxtons in Shoreditch…That is what The Pre New is.

The focus may have shifted from Barratt Homes (see Earl Brutus’s “Blind Date”) to Foxtons, but the Pre New is still very much a continuation, hyper-conscious of its own self-reflexivity. According to Fry, the British Rail logo on the cover art acts as both a tribute to the late Earl Brutus vocalist/lyricist, Nick Sanderson, and as a symbol for the tension and dynamism of opposing forces, Newton’s third law of motion co-opted into the realm of musical pop art. While the colours used in the cover art could reference the Sex Pistols, Fry says they’re actually the colours used in this season of Polo Ralph Lauren. This ambiguity and possibility, this tension between past and future creates a pushmi-pullyu of musical and lyrical references. The record is threaded with the suspension of anticipation, the reminder of modernist impulses in limbo with unfulfilled futures. One of Earl Brutus’s most famous lines was “You are your own reaction” from “The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It.” In many ways, Music for People Who Hate Themselves uses reaction as both a response to past events and re-action as in action repeated. Incidentally, the entry for “reaction” in my Oxford thesaurus provides this example of usage: “a reaction against modernism is inevitable”; the Pre New appears to be the inevitable reaction against the post-modern reaction. It feels like they are reaching back to a time before the 90s buzzword “new.” The Pre New sits on the brittle chest of the whole hauntology music genre and pummels it with incendiary fervour.

The record roars into life with the snotty spitfire of “I, Rockstar,” exhorting you to burn down Foxtons. Halfway through its unhinged chaos, it breaks into a heavy dose of nasal sighing that recalls “(Curtsy)” from Earl Brutus’s Your Majesty…We Are Here. Foxtons appears for the second time in “Cathedral City Comedown,” which mocks “the perfect recipe” of bourgeois life and the “death of England.” Sneering, bashing rock drifts into a psychedelic detour before driving back with a vengeance, augmented by grungy banks of synth buzz. This railing against the significance of property ownership in conjunction with “civilization” status ends with Borman reciting poetry about roundabouts, pound shops, Letraset, the rotting ripeness of England, and of course, the burning of Foxtons. The humourous melancholy of contemporary society is lampooned again in the first single to precede the album, “Do You Like My New Hair?,” which I first heard when Jeremy Deller sat in for Jarvis Cocker on his Sunday Service show last year. Suffused with razor-sharp synths and plashy guitars, it’s the sunniest, most indie pop song on the album. Fry sings “Text me/SMS me…M and S me/S and M me/B and Q me,” conflating consumerism and communication culture. The Pre New return to the emptiness of real estate in the track “In the Perfect Place,” which features Sarah Cracknell. It’s an alternately snarling and glimmering Kraftwerkian track that provides a perfect balance between the dreamy Cracknell and the heavily vocodered Fry. Fry sings like a forlorn appliance while Cracknell, known for her breathy coolness on Saint Etienne tracks, sings details that an estate agent would likely point out to interested buyers. Though Cracknell is ostensibly the only human element to the song, she sounds like a shiny android agent. Fry’s vocodered pronouncements continue on “Albion (You’ve Done Nothing Wrong),” which was released as a single on Valentine’s Day this year. It sounds like a pile driver dirge and was supposedly originally intended to be chucked into Buckingham Palace’s backyard in time for the Royal Wedding. Instead, the song becomes an absurdist indictment of England as a whole. The country is satirized with appropriately shallow acronyms like “lol” and “omg.” In addition to the second appearance of the archaically modern Letraset, the Pre New deride the instant, superficial celebrity of Susan Boyle with the line, “I, too, dreamed the dream/Karaoke machine/Obviously.” The song concludes with haunting, almost robotic, lines from Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic, Beethoven-referencing television play The Ghost Trio. In a brilliant correspondence with Earl Brutus’s “You are your own reaction,” and this current band’s name, The Ghost Trio is divided into acts entitled “Pre-action,” “Action,” and “Re-action.” Beckett’s motifs of waiting and time provide the perfect shades of gray for this album’s themes.

The short interlude of “A Song for People Who Hate Themselves” is a sleazy saunter of a tune with drums banging away like the swinging hips of a cartoon femme fatale as Borman recites lines like “bring me the head of Susan Boyle” over top. It is a reply and extension to Earl Brutus’s “On Me Not In Me.” As he repeats a bitter “now what?,” he seems disappointed by the state of futuristic imaginings, but he is also daring you to attempt a response. His remark of “we slide this way/we slide that way” could be an acknowledgement of the band’s ambiguous flux and the album’s ongoing slippage between genres. “I Believe in Jackie” is a foray into surf-rock guitar twang, which melts into a pumping electronic groove, signaling the rock-dance dichotomy of following track, “A Night on Leather Mountain,” the DAF-referencing disco paean with camp macho vocals. Snarling guitars smash into 8-bit figures as Fry announces “I need disco/I need Berlin.” The song then transitions into an instrumental ambience with a woman speaking over top of ghostly German radio transmissions. She discusses the stagnated waiting of the Cold War, and ends with “It never kicked off,” which could just as well be applied to the hopes of modernism in general, before the track bursts into blistering, epic synthpop.

Stuttering electro and cabaret/vaudeville merge to create the next brief interlude “The New Black Hole.” Slinking ride cymbal accompanies visions of an apocalyptic Los Angeles, already referenced in earlier songs, and then the track swiftly expands into “The Pre New Anthem,” a modernist manifesto as rave anthem. Fry intones “This is a premix/This is a preview/We came before you /We were brand new/We are Pre New/This is what we do.” Earl Brutus crops up once again in the lyric “Action time/Satisfaction/You are your own reaction” along with further references to Pop Art, futurism, and the death drive. It ends with what sounds like the TARDIS, a machine for another cult time traveller, which is highly apt for what follows: the only song fully recovered and resuscitated from the last days of Earl Brutus, “Teenage Taliban.” It begins with a profanity-laden brawl, breaking glass, and car alarms, and then goes on to poke fun at the ridiculous rules and tyranny of adolescence with the freedom of middle-age perspective. The closing track, “Transfer,” is an ethereal wisp of a song that foregrounds the sound of measured exhalation, which now recalls both the opening track “I, Rockstar,” and in turn, “(Curtsy)”. It is literally the breathing room at the end of the record; with its flatline of synths, tendrils of glockenspiel, and minimalist drum machine beats, it ends up becoming nearer to a cathedral of ventilation. The sound of breath could be that of trepidation or meditation. Nearly four minutes into the song, it merges into an echoey swirl of Earl Brutus, eventually ending with “The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It.” It’s like hearing a song from another room. Or opening a stage door into the past. As the chant of “You are your own reaction” fades into oblivion, you’re left with a bittersweet sense of palimpsest. While it could have just been another reference to Letraset, “Transfer” instead becomes a poignant, out-of-time tribute.

There are specters on Music for People Who Hate Themselves: lost friends, lost futures. Nevertheless, there are also vibrant comments firmly grounded in the present, moving forward on an alternative trajectory. This album is a response to personal and collective pasts through an energetic repetition and refashioning. This band is an industrial project for the cyberspace age. Since unfortunately so few bands seem to have picked up the Earl Brutus torch, the Pre New had to step in. They are their own reaction.

You can stream and purchase Music for People Who Hate Themselves on Soundcloud.

Do You Like My New Hair? – The Pre New

A Song For People Who Hate Themselves – The Pre New

The SAS and the Glam That Goes With It – Earl Brutus

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Willful Regression: Graham Coxon’s A+E Reviewed

While Blur continue to plumb the depths of their fans’ enthusiasm and nostalgia, reuniting this summer for the second time in three years to play a special one-off concert in Hyde Park to cap off London’s Olympic festivities along with The Specials and New Order (I’ll be honest – this did tempt me for more than a couple of seconds.  Happily good critical sense – as well as Larissa – intervened), guitarist Graham Coxon continues to evolve as an artist.  A+E, his eighth album in a solo career that began with 1998’s The Sky Is Too High, is unlike anything he’s ever done and it’s definitely not a stretch to say that his solo work has always been more interesting than that with the band that made him astronomically famous.  As fans will know, his albums are notable for not relying on the skills of session musicians, instead with Coxon calling on his own formidable musical talents to play most of the instruments himself.  He’s mastered countless guitar styles, not least of which is the finger-picking folk he used extensively on his last album, 2009’s The Spinning Top, an elegant, pastoral, sprawling concept album about a single man’s life, from cradle to grave.  And speaking of which, part of what pleases me so much about A+E is the wilful regression and contrast between the two albums.  Where The Spinning Top is lush and beautiful and peaceful, A+E is raucous, youthful, and angry.  Of course, sneering punk music is generally far more up my alley than folk, and Coxon’s self-imposed regression into the seemingly juvenile fascinates me, so it’s clear that I find this foray intriguing.

It’s also no secret that this is far from Coxon’s first dip into lo-fi punk and experimental guitar shenanigans.  His first four albums are all pretty rough, and as he was in Blur when he released all of these, it’s easy to assume and is probably mostly accurate that many of these noises were meant to distance himself from Blur and alienate himself from their sometimes teenybopper fanbase.  He was known then for his love of American college rock and indie punk bands in particular (that influence being a major reason why Blur switched styles between The Great Escape and Blur) and the influence of groups like Pavement, Hüsker Dü, and Dinosaur Jr. is as evident now as it was then.  On A+E, the departure from this style comes in the form of electronics and an undeniable krautrock feel.  In fact, the record is pretty much half-and-half loose, messy punk, and the driving motorik influence of krautrock, giving these songs a dark yet dancey feel that’s incredibly appealing.

We begin with “Advice”, a snotty punk number that is the antithesis of anything and everything that appeared on The Spinning Top.  His lyrical bile (“Just shut the point/ Tough break man, it’s not enough/ Completely tough, fucking enough”) is accompanied by a shambolic riff that breaks down even further at the end of each phrase into feedback and out of tune guitar squeaks.  Also, it’s fantastic.  Possibly the only advice necessary for this track is to play it LOUD.  “City Hall” plunges us headfirst into the drum machine-produced motorik beat that appears several more times on the record.  Its repetition is contrasted by well-placed jabs of guitar and horn honks alongside jazzier guitar figures and a subdued but equally repetitive lyric.  “What’ll It Take” is where the dance element is fully introduced in a heavily electronic, synthetic, spiraling way.  I realize that the point of much of this album is a kind of a ‘70s and ‘80s-influenced charming cheapness, but for me this track crosses the line into cheesy cheapness, the repetition here not quite coming off.  It may need more of a melodic sensibility to prop it up, or at least one or two more hook ideas, but the glaring simplicity on “What’ll It Take” makes it a pass for me.  That said, I do have some time for the ending, where he shouts “What’s wrong with me?” over increasingly frantic electronic noise.

Things pick up again, although not necessarily tempo-wise, on the droning “Meet and Drink and Pollinate.”  While the focus here is on the lower end of the guitar’s range, what stands out as a highlight is Coxon’s heavily processed voice with almost no variation in the notes.  This robotic romp is capped off with a sax solo that undercuts the midtempo droning effect, albeit played in the saxophone’s lower register.  Next up is album standout “The Truth”, a dark, post punk influenced, apocalyptic dirge with a monster riff.  The rhythm section is on display here, bass and drums enmeshing to create a wall of ominous sound that’s as dystopian as the words.  As Coxon sings “Slide into the dark, it’s taking shape around you/ Pretty soon it’s all that you will know” I’m reminded of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” if it were done in a different genre or Coxon’s own “You Never Will Be” from Crow Sit on Blood Tree.  There’s a menacing, looming guitar figure on top of all this sludge two-thirds of the way through, where it’s more evident that the bass is subdividing the beat, and a perfectly-fitted little hip shake is injected to intoxicating effect.

“Seven Naked Valleys” sounds positively lightweight in comparison (even though it’s not).  A groovy number that’s a vehicle for some deliciously raunchy sounding saxophone, it’s also got bizarre bleeping electronic noises, a woman’s sampled voice, squealing guitars, all on top of a reliably steady motorik beat.  These sounds converge at the end of each verse, and when Coxon ends his vocal phrase on a trio of ascending notes that are almost a strain, some extra noise is introduced too, and it sounds awesomely chaotic.  “Running For Your Life” is perhaps more unabashedly fun than anything else here, although no less gleefully boisterous.  Yes, it’s about escaping a gang of bullies, but between the hastily-delivered vocal lines and pop-punk riff that alternates with an all-out squall of noise, it reminds me a bit of the state of childhood: loud and busy and enthusiastic.  If cleaned up and prettified, this wouldn’t be out of place on an album like Happiness in Magazines or Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, but there’s something really addicting about the messy, lo-fi production that’s used to offset any commercial potential the melody may have.  The album ends on a mellower note with “Ooh, Yeh Yeh”, a blues-influenced song that forgoes dissonance and loudness for pretty harmonies and contentment.  It’s an appropriate ending, too, as Coxon has spoken about how the sessions for A+E yielded two albums’ worth of songs, with the punkier half showcased on A+E and the blues and soul influenced ones to potentially be released as an album later this year.

I’m always a fan of an album that totally cuts out the ubiquitous love song, so I think that factors into why I like A+E so much.  Mostly, though, it’s the combination of Coxon’s advanced and sophisticated musicianship with songs, production, and techniques that purposely obscure his skill.  His ability as a pop songwriter and performer has been pretty thoroughly explored on albums Happiness in Magazines and Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, and of course even his immense talent for guitar playing was challenged and improved on The Spinning Top.  What happens after that?  Well, for lesser musicians the answer is to retread old territory, and I suppose that, in his move from musical sophistication to simplicity between albums, Coxon’s doing some retreading of his own.  The success of his dive into krautrock and electronica is partially due to his constant willingness to experiment, and to embrace methods and techniques he hasn’t totally mastered in order to express himself.  A+E is an angrier and darker album than he’s released in years, but it’s also a much more fun album than he’s released in years, and Coxon’s joy in trying new things and embracing the results readily comes through.

Graham Coxon – Advice

Graham Coxon – The Truth

A+E is out today and is available through Graham Coxon’s website.

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Give ‘Em What They Want: Modeselektor’s Monkeytown Reviewed

Modeselektor is Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert, two Berliners who with this, their third LP, manage to change and stay the same simultaneously.  They show no sign of altering the often glitchy, hip-hop infused electronic dance blueprint that’s worked so well for them in the past, and why should they?  Monkeytown basically has everything you could want from a good electronic dance album; it displays a delicious sort of cohesiveness in its diversity.  From guest rappers and urban-influenced tracks to ethereal, hypnotic swathes of sound interspersed with bleeped staccato hiccups, Monkeytown manages to never sound staid.  More than that, it’s a thrilling listen from front to back and rewards close, thoughtful listening as well as uninhibited dancefloor enjoyment.

“Blue Clouds” opens the album and sets the tone well in that its beats are frantic with a pervading sense of calm by way of a slower, dreamy figure occurring at the same time as well as a relatively stripped-down sound.  In the world of Monkeytown this is the sound of austerity and serves as a jumping-off point for the rest of the album.  This smoother, sophisticated sound is picked up again eight tracks later on “Green Light Go,” another moody cut in which increased electronic punctuation slowly builds, then unexpectedly falls away to a passage comprised solely of vocoder-processed vocals.  The song builds up again in layers of voice and synth, upbeat yet melancholy.

The hip-hop contingent is present and accounted for on “Prententious Friends” and “Humanized”, the former a rather ridiculous take on the snobby acquaintances of its title.  “Pretentious Friends,” featuring guest rapper Busdriver, injects a shot of humour into the album.  The music, however, is unflagging, with Modeselektor’s beats perfectly accentuating Busdriver’s flow.  There’s also a fun vocal figure near the end of the track, with some unusual harmonies and reiteration of the song’s title.  “Humanized” features Anti Pop Consortium and is an entirely different affair: underneath a stuttering beat is a far more urgent vocal delivery that gives yet another dimension to this varied album.

Possibly Modeselektor’s most famous fan is Thom Yorke, whose voice graces “Shipwreck” and “This”, lending those tracks a compelling strangeness that’s difficult to define.  On “Shipwreck” Yorke’s vocals recall his work on his own solo album, The Eraser, due in no small part to the hyperactive, uneven beat working below his voice and bringing a sense of urgency to the song.  This feeling is intensified by the highly manipulated sound of the vocal track: Yorke’s voice sounds familiar yet distant, buried in twitchy rhythms – the distorted quality of his voice tells us that he’s losing this fight, and the last few seconds of the track seal his fate; the bass rises ominously in the mix as his voice becomes overwhelmed by a simplified beat, and then it’s all over.  “This” features Yorke’s vocals more prominently, at least in regard to volume.  Here that finely sliced vocal track becomes rhythm along with everything else, and another vocal track is added just after the two-minute mark, this one providing melody instead of texture.  These two tracks voiced by Yorke bring a haunting component to Monkeytown that perfectly complements the electronics at work behind Szary and Bronsert’s music.

Dance time gears up on “Berlin” a slower groove featuring vocals by Miss Platinum.  This track has a lot more mainstream appeal than some others on Monkeytown, clearly due to its far less erratic feel and melodic pop vocal.  “Berlin” does break down just past the midpoint of the track, with Miss Platinum’s multi-tracked voice surrendering to the distorted soundscape surrounding her, but I think it’s this track’s tempo that keeps it within the realm of mainstream pop even when descending into electronic weirdness.  Indeed, the weirdness drops off at the end of the track, leaving Miss Platinum’s soulful voice to shine on its own.  “Grillwalker” immediately kicks off into such a deliriously appealing syncopated groove, you totally don’t realize it barely has a melody.  That clean beat devolves into atmospheric washes of sound about three-quarters of the way through, but the tempo is picked up again promptly and the reintroduction of that cheeky little figure feels unequivocally affirming.

While it’s true that personally my least favourite tracks are the ones that contain rapping, it certainly isn’t fair to say that those tracks stand out as alien amidst an otherwise cohesive whole.  Monkeytown covers a ton of different ground, but no single track here feels out of place.  Rather, these stylistic ideas seem to appear in pairs or groups, ensuring that a style or genre appears at least twice on the album with a lot of overlap besides.  Nothing really stands out as strange or unfitting because everything is strange here, keeping the listener interested but more importantly creating a diverse album of disparate influences and ideas that are connected through their seeming disconnection.

 

Modeselektor – Shipwreck

Modeselektor – Berlin

Modeselektor – Green Light Go

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Isolation: Zwischenwelt’s Paranormale Aktivitat Reviewed

At the urging of some of my friends, I’ve been getting into classic ‘90s TV series The X-Files.  I missed The X-Files the first time around as I was eight when it debuted in 1993, and as a teenager didn’t get into the (by then) long-established show.  Clearly though, the cultural significance and legacy of the series endures, and a couple of my friends are committed fans who are guiding me (admittedly not much of a sci-fi person) through their favourite and most significant episodes in an effort to convert me into an X-Phile.

My progress so far has been slow, and I’m only halfway through the first season, but so far one of the episodes that has stood out to me is “Ghost in the Machine,” about a software company’s central operating system that’s designed to work using artificial intelligence.  This machine has been “learning” while it’s been installed and operating, and has figured out how to kill people.  The climax of the episode occurs when a virus that’s promised to destroy the program is apparently successfully deployed.  However, the episode ends on an unresolved and creepy note when the COS comes back to “life” and it is suggested that it will continue killing people.  Yeah, okay, “Ghost in the Machine” is totally predictable and unoriginal, but the ending certainly appealed to the child in me and my imagination was piqued at the thought of a “machine gone wrong”; the machine designed to learn things that will contribute to the company’s needs and productivity, not attack its employees.  Original or not, it’s an unsettling episode that reminds us of the all-consuming role technology plays in our lives.

Zwischenwelt’s Paranormale Aktivitat reminds me of this episode and of the whole X-Files series in general.  Obviously; both the TV show and the album are about unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity.  But it feels like there’s further parallels between the two: Paranormale Aktivitat would make an excellent soundtrack to The X-Files, particularly in its most alienating (pun partially intended) moments.  Paranormale Aktivitat also seems like music from the perspective of technology: unconcerned with feelings and emotions, ambivalent towards its being perceived as strange or sinister, and despite being engineered by people, expressive in a way that we can’t quite comprehend as human.

Zwischenwelt is the current project of Detroit techno icon and former Drexciya member Gerald Donald.  On Paranormale Aktivitat, he’s joined by New York DJ and producer Susana Correia, Spanish producer Penelope Martin, and German vocalist Beta Evers for an exercise in sparse, eerie, electronic sounds that perhaps sound a bit like a homicidal computer if it were to produce an album of music.  The lyrical content and song titles read as a veritable list of parapsychological phenomena: “Apparition,” “Clairvoyant,” “Multiple Existence,” “Premonition,” and “Telekinesis” being a few.  These often mechanical songs and the sounds that comprise them are given human presence by Beta Evers, whose detached Nico-style delivery alternately warms and chills.

“Clairvoyant” opens with an upbeat synth pulse overtop of which are much faster notes that could possibly be danceable if it weren’t for the fact that they’re composed of disconcerting microtones that do more to unnerve than relax.  Wisps of ghostly sound underpin Evers as she sings about “scenes of time and space in my mind’s eye.”  And that’s very possibly the least chilling cut on the album.  “Diapsiquia,” “Enigmata,” “Materialization,” and “Multiple Existence” form the lyric-less centre of the album, emphasizing the feeling that these sounds can’t be rationalized by human interference.  “Diapsiquia” is punctuated by a thudding bass synth; it really could be the theme music for a science fiction show or film.  “Materialization” combines a droning backbeat with a familiar-yet-unnerving semitone figure highlighted with a metronome-like pulse in the foreground.  “Multiple Existence” opens with a screeching blast of cold air before giving way to yet another dissonant series of semitones that march with discipline on to an uneasy and unresolved conclusion.  Evers’ voice is heard in snippets, thoroughly processed and camouflaged to fit in with her cold surroundings.  Just when you think there might be something resembling a syncopated and funky beat at the beginning of “Telemetric”, another pulsing, more insistent beat slides against it, taking the song into the realm of something approaching electronic dance music as programmed by ghosts.

The artists behind Zwischenwelt can clearly take a concept and run with it.  But I think that Paranormale Aktivitat is more than just a well-executed album with a strong theme.  It’s so strongly evocative of something other than here and now that it transports the listener to someplace significantly more unsettling, more disturbing.  It’s the sound of a nightmare-made-real populated by intelligent machines or the desolation that comes from staying up night after night, interacting with nothing but the blue glow of the computer monitor.  Isolation: Ian Curtis sang about it, but Paranormale Aktivitat is how it sounds.

 

Zwischenwelt – Clairvoyant

Zwischenwelt – Materialization

Zwischenwelt – Multiple Existence

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“Going Deeper and Deep”: Zola Jesus’ Conatus Reviewed

Zola Jesus is the stage name of singer/songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, a 22-year-old Wisconsinite whose second LP, Stridulum II, made waves in the indie music press last year for its gothic sensibility and laid down the blueprint for her newest release, Conatus.  Occupying a space in the contemporary indie music scene somewhere between the occult-alluding and economical post-punk sound of These New Puritans and Florence and the Machine’s taste for dramatic swings between mass-appeal, rousing anthems and darker subjects like loneliness, alcoholism, and domestic/sexual abuse (one interpretation of early single “Kiss with a Fist”) while also drawing on earlier influences like Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Dead Can Dance, Danilova’s music sounds like the product of social and physical isolation.  Indeed, her childhood was spent in the forest of Wisconsin and she has spoken about her solitary upbringing and its inevitable influence on her personality and music in past interviews.

Another reference point is the music that Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife makes as Fever Ray, her solo project.  Fever Ray’s music, though, is more coldly electronic, without the addition of orchestration and without the particular aesthetic affectation that contributes to Zola Jesus’ classification as ‘gothic.’  The real departure point between Fever Ray and Zola Jesus is, of course, their voices.  Andersson’s delivery is both alien and alienating; despite the fact that the music is melodic and inviting on occasion, her vocal shrillness alternating with an eerie deep end accentuates the discomfiting elements of the music, not the beauty of it.  On the opposite side of the vocal spectrum is Danilova, whose warmth and power bring humanity to her cool electronics and dark subject matter.  It’s been asserted in other reviews that Danilova’s voice is immediately recognizable and distinctly her own, and for the most part I agree, with one small exception: her delivery on the verses of “Hikikomori” reminds me of the style of The xx’s Romy Madley Croft; I think it’s the short notes that bring out this hiccupping similarity.  Both singers are cramming a lot of emotion into those short notes, but certainly when Danilova is singing longer phrases, her distinct lyricism takes over again.

‘Conatus’ is a Latin philosophical term meaning effort, undertaking, or striving, particularly with regard to the human condition and our will for self-preservation.  Danilova reportedly chose the album’s title before she began writing any of the songs for it and has reflected that the title comes more from the process of making the album rather than a summary of the songs themselves.

Now for the bad news (and also, I think, the good news): Conatus does not contain a track so immediately relatable yet haunting and otherworldly-sounding as Stridulum II’s “Sea Talk.”  The closest Danilova comes on Conatus is the driving, industrial sound of “Vessel” and its brief refrain that sounds quite like the sun breaking through clouds.  Rather, the whole album is more even, more cohesive, more focused than its predecessor.  Danilova also explores the new frontier (for her) of more straight-ahead (synth)pop music on tracks like “Seekir” and “In Your Nature.”  Of course, her brand of avant-pop owes as much to industrial music and dubstep as it does to, well… accessible, melodic, easy-to-digest pop music (I refuse to make a Lady Gaga reference.  Except I just did.  Eeeek).  Indeed, much of the album teeters on the cusp of being palatable to a bigger, more mainstream audience than the one she currently reaches.

While I have no idea of the kind of scope Danilova has for her music in the near or distant future, it seems to me that her fixation on subjects like loneliness, alienation, and abandonment combined with her particular styling/aesthetic choices provide the perfect counterpoint to her melodies and powerful vocal presence, lending a generous amount of complexity and darkness to her work.  Her voice also seems to be that complicated thing: it’s what brings warmth and humanity into these often mechanical-sounding songs, but it also is one of the darkest elements of her sound, emphasizing the despair about which she so often sings.  Her increased use of electronics also contributes depth and a sense of musical growth to Conatus that wasn’t as evident on Stridulum II.  A lovely, assured, and remarkable release.

Zola Jesus – Hikikomori

Zola Jesus – In Your Nature

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