Jon Lindblom writes about recently released music that thematically overlaps with the state of the world during the coronavirus pandemic.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit a few months ago, my engagement in culture took a sudden stop. Not because I think that culture cannot play an important part in times of crisis, but rather because I felt that the emergence of such a major global catastrophe as the coronavirus pandemic in an already increasingly unstable world warranted serious reflection on the current social and political climate in particular. Hence, culture was put on pause for me. But now that things are slowing down a bit at least where I am based – and hopefully not just temporarily – it feels timely to start looking at culture again, including from the perspective of the pandemic. Of course, the long-term implications of COVID-19 are yet to be determined. In this article, my ambition is thus to simply highlight some music that was released either during or just before its global outbreak and that either happened to converge with it thematically, or that was composed or performed explicitly in response to it.
Unsurprisingly, the affective tone of the music oscillates between melancholy and dread – somewhat in terms of what I previously have characterised as ‘dystopian modernism’. Indeed, I think that the sonic articulations of the feelings of melancholy and dread that come with living in an early 21st century world haunted by a series of imminent global catastrophes can be taken as a theme that underpins much of the music discussed in this article. This obviously encompasses, but also goes beyond, the current pandemic. For what is important to be aware of is that the coronavirus pandemic is not simply an isolated incident, but the first out of a series of interconnected global threats looming on the horizon because of how we (or, rather, late capitalism) are mistreating the natural world. Because the underlying causes of the coronavirus pandemic (e.g. the meat industry and agriculture, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, along with global transportation and travel) are the exact same as those that may cause future climate catastrophe. And then there is of course mass unemployment, economic crises, political breakdowns, wars and other kinds of threats to add to this cocktail of global unrest.
Needless to say, this is a very bleak scenario. But there are reasons for hope as well. For one thing that is important to remember is that impending catastrophes also can act as socio-political catalysts that compel different people to come together and collaborate in novel ways. Indeed, the only way to confront the current situation is through more collaboration insofar as the present and impending catastrophes all are increasingly global (although some will, of course, be much more affected by them than others). I think that the underground electronic music community in many ways is exemplary in this regard, with its openness towards global cultures and collaboration.
Amnesia Scanner – Tearless (PAN)
The artist statement that accompanies Tearless describes it as ‘a sonic reflection of how it feels to experience Earth at a time when collapse is emerging as the prevailing narrative’. Needless to say, a fitting topic in times like these – which also has been a thematic thread throughout Amnesia Scanner’s releases; from their EPs and collaboration with Bill Kouligas (Lexachast), to their debut album Another Life from 2018. Tearless is their follow-up to that album, in terms of a continuation of the duo’s particular kind of apocalyptic pop that utilises the formal disorientation of deconstructed dance music as an index of the disorienting experiences of the chaotic present. It is indeed the (compelling) cognitive dissonance that emerges in the clash between the duo’s interest in abstraction, experimentation and deconstruction, and their simultaneous commitment to the pop song format, that I think makes their music particularly exciting. In other words, how they are taking a cuddly feel-good genre like pop and infuse it with disorienting sounds and apocalyptic themes – which also comprises their visual profile and music videos. Sonically, Tearless is also a step up from Another Life, which has plenty of good moments but ultimately is a bit too uneven. Tearless, in contrast, is a short but punchy record, with the same kind of sonic profile as its predecessor – although a lot better balanced as a whole.
Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts V: Together / Ghosts IV: Locusts (The Null Corporation)
Ghosts I-IV (2008) is probably my least favourite of NIN’s main releases. Although the idea of almost two hours of instrumental music sounded like an interesting experiment, the album itself lacks consistency and feels like a collection of sketches that have not been worked through properly. There are still some similar issues on the two follow-ups Ghosts V and Ghosts VI – which were made available for free, without any prior announcement, at the end of March as a response to the coronavirus pandemic – but, overall, these two instalments are a significant improvement over the previous four. Perhaps this is related to the NIN-duo’s extensive work on film scores since the first four Ghosts were released – although in my book it is mainly because the music has been given a lot more room to slowly evolve here, in contrast to the predecessors (which had plenty of interesting moments that unfortunately were cut off way too quickly). Ghosts V: Together is definitely the stronger one in this regard, which beautifully interweaves ambient electronic drones, sampled voices, soft guitar plucking and acoustic instrumentation such as piano. The overall vibe leans towards the soothing and melancholic, which is contrasted by the darker atmosphere that permeates Ghosts VI: Locusts. In that regard, the two albums do a good job of tapping into dominant affective tones of the present – although I prefer V because VI somewhat suffers from the same problems as I-IV, with a number of shorter tracks that fall a bit short next to the longer ones which feel a lot more complete. The first four tracks are really good, but the album loses momentum once it moves into the shorter tracks and does – despite a few great moments here and there – not recover before it ends.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – Improvisation for Sonic Cure (Sonic Cure)
This is actually not a new release, but an online concert performed by Sakamoto on February 29th ‘to encourage isolated people in China’ following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic (he later followed it up with another longer concert that also is available online). Beautifully shot in black-and-white, the set features Sakamoto playing a variety of objects and instruments against the background of a soft drone – starting with stones that he gently strikes and scratches against each other, before moving on to playing piano, guitar and synthesiser. When watching the performance, it is difficult not to think of his most recent album Async from 2017 – partly because it also synthesises acoustic and electronic music with everyday sounds into a melancholic sonic palette, but also because one of the underlying themes of that album is death and the fragility of life. As is well-known, Sakamoto was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 – which perhaps is the reason why that became part of the record. And now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, death and the fragility of life have obviously become increasingly urgent concerns worldwide – which the melancholy of Sakamoto’s music seems to affectively articulate in a similarly striking way, now set against a global rather than personal backdrop.
Temp-Illusion – Pend (Zabte Sote)
Temp-Illusion’s second album Pend amplifies the harsher elements of their sonic profile – in order to convey the feelings of fear, stress and paranoia of living in a world that increasingly seems to slide toward the brink of collapse, with multiple catastrophes looming on the horizon. Even though the imminent threat of war seems to have been the driving force behind the album (according to their artist statement), it is of course not difficult to expand its sonic paranoia against the background of global catastrophes such as the coronavirus pandemic (the album was released around the time of the global outbreak). Sonically, Pend is a step up from their (great) debut album Autolected from last year, as it feels more worked through as a studio album. Their roots in hip-hop and IDM are still detectable, but it is definitely the harsher sounds that stand out here – in the form of thundering and clattering beats, rumbling layers of bass, screeching electronics and waves of distortion that indeed form an overall unsettling sonic atmosphere apt to these unsettling times.
Vladislav Delay – Rakka (Cosmo Rhythmatic)
Rakka is Sasu Ripatti’s (a.k.a. Vladislav Delay) first album since 2014. In the interim, he has reportedly spent time hiking above the Arctic Circle and, coincidentally, scored a TV-show (also entitled Arctic Circle) about a mysterious and deadly virus that makes a criminal investigation take surprising turns. The underlying thematic of Rakka is, similarly, barren and desolate landscapes – so more about threats immanent to untouched nature than about those (like zoonotic diseases such as the coronavirus) that emerge at the intersection of the human and natural world. Yet a similar sense of emotional unease on the back of a confrontation with alien nature nevertheless makes the album thematically relevant in times like these. And sonically, it is a record that certainly lives up to its dark thematic underpinnings – channelling the twisted vibe of Scandinavian black metal through appropriately chilling electronic and industrial music in the style of artists such as Shapednoise, Ben Frost and JK Flesh. So, not necessarily the most original form of electronic music, but this is compensated by the execution – which is compelling. It is particularly the intense combination of harsh textures and irregular rhythmic patterns that stands out to me, and which constantly morphs into new forms in terms of a kind of formal shapeshifting that amplifies the sense of unknown terror that sits at the heart of the album.
Image Credit: Nine Inch Nails