Revisiting the Music of 2011: Dissent, Censorship, and Apocalypse

From turning our gaze backwards, and recycling lost time, a new music is emerging, slowly paving way for an impending rupture to come.

— By | January 5, 2012

Albrecht Durer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. — Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

The end of the year prompts all sorts of rituals of recollection. We’ve once again revolved around the sun, and to prepare us for the celestial rhythms of the next cycle, turning our gaze backwards allows us to reflect on where we’re heading, as if no great distance separated the before from the after. To some remarkable extent, we’re still here, alive on the planet, although we might not be so confident of our stay for much longer. This year, the proliferation of apocalyptic tales, natural disasters, eschatological nightmares, and the perpetual recycling of end of history lamentations have permeated the inclinations of both popular and unpopular culture, especially in music (and film, too, as Hydra’s Jose-Luis Moctezuma relays), spreading its virus through the subterranean fringes, and whatever one might still call the avant-garde.

Perhaps we’ve come to take seriously some of the unnerving considerations proposed by philosopher Ray Brassier, that our impending extinction requires our deepest reflection, one which should reorient our thinking away from the anthropocentric framework of the Copernican Revolution, to regions unbound by the gravitational pull between earth and sun. Enlightenment requires an absolutely unhuman mode of thinking, living, creating. Unhinging ourselves, as Brassier prescribes, would certainly follow to its end the internal logic of what Simon Reynolds recounts in his book published earlier this year, Retromania: Popular music has turned its activities to the past, bewitched by the ruins of history and recordings, disjointed from its temporal circumstances by the internet’s diffusive mode of networking and distributing information. But if the difference between past, present, and future no longer holds in any simplistic chronological order, what then becomes of history, of world-annihilation, without an end in sight?

Mark Fisher, who has written imaginative politico-economic examinations of  music on his blog, K-Punk, suggests in his recent book, Capitalist Realism, that our current obsession with annihilation reflects a stifled awareness that, in our post cold-war malaise where we are frozen by the never ending war on terror, we can no longer even envision an escape from late capitalism–a horizon outside the ever expanding frontiers of the market system in which everything is swallowed. His diagnosis certainly gains some weight from the year’s many events of unrest, from the revolutions invoked by the Arab Spring, and its continuing struggles, the Eurozone’s teetering on the edge of collapse, to the global eruption of physical occupations of the idea of Wall Street. Nevertheless, earlier this year, a Christian radio broadcaster’s warnings of rapture did not come to pass. Twice. But now, the dawn of 2012, and the fabled end of the Mayan calendar, is upon us.

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James Ferraro's "Far Side Virtual"

As for music itself, few releases captivated this year’s disoriented, apocalyptic zeitgeist as well as James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual. Conceptually daring, alienating, horrifically ordinary and optimistic in the most disturbing way possible–Far Side Virtual is a nearly unlistenable musical theory of the technological dream in which we are all enraptured. Ferraro pulls sonic detritus from iPhone apps, computer start-up noises, ringtones, late 1980s and early ’90s infomercials and commercials, Pixar films, and music scrapped from video games menus and end game sequences. While anchored in references to synth-pop, Far Side‘s virtually encoded soundscape is modified through an Apple laptop with digital beds of drum patterns and glowing, synthetic shine.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out Ferraro’s stance: sincere, ironic, critical? What I’ve determined, though, is that his intention doesn’t matter much. Ferraro’s artistic talent lies in a phenomenological sensitivity for hyper-realism: the way contemporary, digitally networked technology is altering our way of desiring, connecting, committing. In interviews, he has reported to tap into this hyper-realism in strip malls in Los Angeles, St. Marks in New York, and the global non-space of Starbucks cafes. After listening to the album a few times, just on tinny laptop speakers, I’ve come to find myself exiled to a strange sensation of lost, endless time within an enhanced world, one whose cycles arhythmically (un)balance the rapid production and satisfaction of distributed desire. It’s spontaneous and overwhelming.

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Many music journalists come to understand and listen to Ferraro’s music in terms of the theoretical framework of hypnagogic pop, a concept initiated by The Wire’s David Keenan set to mark the recent emergence of lo-fi rock evoking a nebulous psychological state between being awake and dreaming. Is this space something of the last frontier? Given the kind of anxiety and unrest Ferraro’s work inspires, and the hyper-sterilized space within which it puts into motion its labor, the hypnagogic might just establish the deterritorialized boundaries for a new sort of mobilization. Simon Reynolds sums it up concisely: ”Perhaps the secret idea buried inside hypnagogic pop is that the ’80s never ended. That we’re still living there, subject to that decade’s endless end of History, killing time as we wait for something (seismic, subaltern) to rupture the dream.”

Ferraro wasn’t the only musician this year to harness the kitsch of the dream and remagnetize the tech-utopia of waking life. John Maus, also working within the sphere of 1980s synth-pop, produced an excellent record of romantic solipsism and city-living despair. In short, he wrestles with the Enlightenment myth of our alleged autonomy over our desires, and seeks out his true desire in the most unlikely sonic resonances. Maus named his record We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves after the 12th thesis of French philosopher Alain Badiou’s fifteen theses on contemporary art, published in issue 23 of Lacanian Ink:

Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, Empire no longer censures anything. All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy. We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.

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Maus, like Ferraro, struggles to pass the threshold, without contamination, into those spaces unheralded, neglected, or forgotten by Empire–post-industrial detritus, everyday noise, abandoned infrastructure, lost time–where the markings, traces, and graffiti of outsider desire thrive. The young hip-hop producer of Dipset fame, Araabmuzik, found the source of his scrawl in the shadow of 1990s trance, some of the most ecstatic, optimistic, and highly marketed music to ever subject millions of alleged Dionysian initiates to the rush of the rave, the utopian reveries of the bass drop. I wrote on Araabmuzik’s record, aptly titled Electronic Dream, in late summer, and still marvel on its way of uncovering the dark, even tragic motivation, of classic Eurodance cheese. The haunted underbelly of trance is revealed through unsettling bass patterns, nearly arhythmic percussion, and a gurgling dose of demonic synthetic keys, all which suffocate the false idols, kitschy optimism, of the source material which he attacks, perverts, and desiccates. An unliving, underground stream awakens.

Any end of the year recap also has to account for the resurgence of the overground stream of raves in 2011. A resurgence which helped a previously unknown emo screamer turned dubstep producer, Scrillex, garner five Grammy nominations, including best new artist. Yes, dubstep has gone mainstream, a sequence launched at the beginning of the year by Britney Spears, and culminated in the easily digestible electronic rhythms of Scrillex (and a dubstep Korn album?). But despite the increasing monotony, and consistently conventional masculinity of the genre, sometimes disparagingly, or lovingly, labeled bro-step, something is left to be said of Scrillex’s bizarre music video for “First of the Year (Equinox).” If we could generalize from its narrative, and the video’s popularity at nearly 30 million views, then I have to say something is disturbing about millions of festival goers across the country identifying with a little girl who resists a pedophile’s advances through the angsty violence of Scrillex’s wobble, wobble, bass. This music doesn’t exactly mirror the utopian trance of Paul Oakenfold’s ’90s, but has mutated in the conditions of depressed times, diagnosing the general disillusionment with, yet attachment to, the dream plaguing a great deal of America’s everyday, middle-class populace.

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Some more unsettling explorations of masculinity come from Los Angeles’s Odd Future collective and Sacramento’s Death Grips. While Scrillex sycophants scorn the figure of the pedophile-like good upholders of resentful ethics, Tyler, the Creator surprisingly found a way to incarnate a kind of moral decrepitude in Goblin that prompted music critics and listeners to wage in ceaseless battles over censorship. Although Tyler fell just as quickly he rose, it seemed like no one from either side of the debate actually listened to his music. Whatever your stance on the moral caliber of his raps, Tyler’s serpent-like nihilism holds up as an antithesis to Alain Badiou’s call for us to become the “pitiless censors” of ourselves: his free reign of desire somehow taps into an illicit territory which resists facile consummation. I credit this to Tyler’s musical schizophrenia more so than any rebellious talent, one whose psychological disintegration produces a multiplicity of contradictory perspectives on a festering decay haunting both our most banal-seeming and repressed desires. Hugely popular R&B saviors, Drake and The Weeknd, on the other hand, promote a kind of self-indulgence and sexual decadence that fits all too perfectly into typologies of capital. Although, I have to admit that I find great, thoughtless pleasure in listening to The Weeknd.

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Drummer Zach Hill’s side project, Death Grips, also has just as little remorse for moralists. Their release, Ex Military, sounds like the biological weaponry of Cannibal Ox, deconstructed into feverish noise and maniacal slaps of bass–nightmarish landscapes of sound recalling the destructed bio-mechanical ecologies of dystopian films from the likes of Ridley Scott and George MillerOn “Guillotine,” MC Ride spits raw verses, his voice barking a kind of incomprehensible language, whose tenor joyously approaches the precipice of apocalyptic implosion. Music, even sound, becomes dehumanized, embodying to the extreme Ray Brassier’s concept of “the unlife”. The specter of Brassier, implied in its extreme nihilism, haunts a number of releases, this year. Another brilliant record from Hype Williams, One Nation, begins with pure morbidness: a gruff voice appears from the shadows in an untitled track over sparse dub rhythms and swirling John Carpenter synth lines, insisting on the need for the living to face up to mortality: “but of course everyone dies, and you will too.” The record heeds this wisdom, playing with the fleeting character of recycled sounds from UK bass, as if they are all about to wisp away as soon as they appear.

One of the most evocative listens of the year, Kuedo’s Severant invokes the lost paradise of Scott’s Blade Runner with a recharged urgency. “Vectoral,” in particular, beautifully echoes Vangelis’s soundtrack, reframing the synthetic pulse within footwork rhythms, programmed breakdowns, and drum machine gusts of digitally-manufactured liquid wind. More than a few musicians found inspiration in the frenetic, tinny grooves bubbling up from the hoods of South and West Chicago in the form of footwork. Descending from the same sort of post-industrial depressed economies that brought about Detroit techno and ghetto-tech bootlegs, footwork sounds strangely like UK drum n’ bass or grime, as if the Black Atlantic diaspora of electronic rhythms cyphered towards synchronic destinations despite their regional dislocation. DJ Rashad’s Just a Taste EP booms with poly-percussive rhythms that shift abruptly in winding drum patterns while vocal cuts dissolve into looped beats of flittering noise. A good introduction to footwork is the second volume of Bangs & Works on Planet Mu, a compilation tracing the grooves in their constant ascension, without any final horizon in sight–after all, this is music essentially made for the dance floor.

What Kuedo’s Severant does best is guide desire to take pleasure in loss, transforming nostalgia into renewal–invigorating the shadowed wastelands perhaps once formed and shaped by Empire, but since forgotten, thrown into the gutter to rot and decay. The two releases of the year which I keep coming back to, Laurel Halo’s Hour Logic EP and Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica, conjure a kind of mournful alienation that bridges the apocalyptic character of melancholia with an ecstatic resoluteness. While Laurel Halo prefers a symbiosis between percussion and ambient fluxes pushing bio-engineered corpse of techno to new heights of potency, Oneohtrix’s alchemy consists in the sounds of analogue ambient–flooded synth melodies, electric surges, and sparse piano keys–eerily unbounded in a ghostly absence of percussion.

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From turning our gaze backwards, and recycling lost time, a new music is emerging: hyper-real, intensely emotional, richly theoretical, outside anachronistic sentiments for the acoustic or authentic–slowly paving way for the impending rupture to come.

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