Art Pop, Deconstructed Dance Music / PAN / September 7, 2018 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
The Berlin-based duo Amnesia Scanner (Martti Kalliala and Ville Haimala) formed in 2014 and has since then put out a string of great EPs, mixtapes, music videos and other projects. Yet this is their first full-length album, which was released by PAN – a record label that has established itself as one of the most important for contemporary electronic music since it was founded in 2008 by Bill Kouligas. And the addition of Another Life to its catalogue only confirms that; for not only is it a great record, but it is also part of a compelling project fully invested in navigating the chaotic cultural terrain of the present. From crypto-raves and outsourcing through digital platforms, to virtual world-building and digital maximalism – one of the most exciting aspects of Amnesia Scanner’s work is precisely its immersion in – and experimentation with – the novel cultural landscapes that have emerged through digitalisation. The duo sometimes refer to themselves as ‘experience designers’, which certainly makes sense for a project that aims to construct alternative perspectives on what they characterise as the ‘anxiety’, ‘abstract horror’ and ‘dark euphoria’ of the times in which we live.
Hence, Amnesia Scanner’s turn to a more pop-oriented sound on Another Life is also interesting, insofar as it augments the sociocultural scope of the project beyond the cultural norms and ecologies of underground music, while at the same time utilising experimental resources in order to provide a broader reflection on popular digital culture. Indeed – much like projects of a similar nature – when at its most effective, it operates as a positive feedback-loop that expands the horizon of our understanding of what both pop- and experimental culture can be. In that regard, the duo has a lot in common with the musician Holly Herndon (and they did indeed make a guest appearance on her album Platform from 2015) – who also makes compelling use of digital technologies as a means for investigating the ‘sounds of the now’, and similarly operates at the intersection between the popular and the experimental in terms of what we may think of as a digital predecessor to post-war ‘popular modernism’ (Herndon has for instance referred to the pop-song as a ‘carrier signal’ for more subversive sonic experiments – which is a sentiment echoed by Amnesia Scanner both in interviews and in their sounds). Indeed, the perhaps most important aspect of both Herndon’s and Amnesia Scanner’s work is precisely their visions of what a subversive popular culture could look like at the dawn of 21st century digital culture.
Sonically, the album operates as a more compressed (because of the pop-song format) version of Amnesia Scanner’s earlier releases (although there are already plenty of tracks on those that point in this direction). And, as mentioned earlier and again in tune with the digital present, it has a very maximalist sound that aims for overload rather than restraint – such as on great tracks like ‘AS Unlinear’ and the aptly titled ‘AS Chaos’, which both feature guest-vocals by the fellow PAN-artist Pan Daijing. Likewise, all sounds are digitally generated or processed – and created on self-made software equipment. Again, Platform is one obvious reference point – as well as Fever Ray’s great techno-pop album Plunge from last year. This is also true because of these artists’ shared interest in so-called ‘vocal science’, which is another extremely contemporary phenomenon in what we may refer to as the ‘age of auto-tune’. Because aside from Pan Daijing’s guest appearances, there is a virtual vocalist present throughout the album. Referred to by the duo as ‘Oracle’, it is not an actual person but a ‘stack of software’ that makes me think of the post-human intelligence Samantha voiced by Scarlett Johansson in Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013). This is not an entirely accurate comparison, however, since Oracle does not sound human like Samantha – and is not an actual A.I.-program, but rather a software-configuration that allowed the duo to input outsourced voice work in order to receive the desirable vocal output (that, as they put it, will allow people to identify Amnesia Scanner’s music through its artificial vocalist similarly to how one often recognises a fully human (pop) group because of the sound of the lead-singer’s voice). The result is great, in that it further enhances the feeling of mutant, digital pop-modernism that I think is central to the album as a whole.
Crucial here is also their cognitive commitments. In the album’s press release, the duo states that ‘Amnesia Scanner’s approach is informed by a unique perspective on technology and the way it mediates contemporary experience’ in terms of phenomena such as ‘information overload’ and ‘sensory excess’. In that regard, I think that their work also may be understood as an attempt to bridge the cognitive gap between cyberspace and cybertime that the theorist Franco Berardi argues is characteristic of contemporary experience under what he calls ‘semio-capitalism’. Indeed, as I somewhat alluded to in my article on this aspect of Berardi’s work, crucial to any technologically oriented art that deems itself to be contemporary has to be the task of overcoming this disjunction through what Berardi calls ‘cognitive reformatting’ – by using aesthetics as a means for experimenting with different ways to cognitively interface with a late capitalist connective environment that cannot be fully indexed by immediate experience. It seems to me that this should be a key ambition of digital maximalism in general, as Mark Fisher hints at in his review of Rustie’s debut album Glass Swords from 2011 (an album that also is one of Simon Reynolds’ primary examples in his article on the topic): ‘Glass Swords eroticises data-overload instead of further contributing to it. […] It temporarily constructs a body and a sensorium capable of managing – and enjoying – cyber-blitz’. The same goes with Another Life, which, to again quote Fisher, conveys ‘the same sense of a fully artificialized world, in which every pixel is candycoated in hyper-lurid digital hues that have no analogue in organic nature’ – but, in accordance with the duo’s intentions, manages to offer us an alternative perspective on this (that is, our) fully artificial world, rather than merely succumbing to it under its present late capitalist form. I think that this is part of the reason for why I recently have tended to be increasingly drawn to music that operates through this kind of artificial sonic overload – as opposed to retreating to a more ‘authentic’ aesthetic scarcity in response to the cognitive alienation induced by the disjunction between late capitalist cyberspace and cybertime – since it seems to me that it is musicians such as these who are the most inventive at the moment in that they aim to construct a novel form of aesthetic cognition on the basis of the chaotic demands and affordances of the digital present.