Saturday, August 11, 2012


"Do you think things are going to get better before they get worse?" 
"No way. Things are going to get worse and keep on getting worse. . ."

"What do you think this country's going to look like in 2003?" 
"You know, I'll tell you the truth. Nothing against you guys, but I don't want to answer that question because I haven't even got a mind that's that inhumane." 
"Are you ready for what's coming?" 
"Ready as I'll ever be."

I've only purchased one piece of vinyl in my life, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP, which remains--even thirteen years on (and ten years on since I picked it up)--a stunning release. It was an exciting thing to have, despite the inconvenience of not having my own record player and pretty much only getting to listen to it when I could convince my dad to put it on his record player (given that he favours mostly rock and roll from the 1950s and 1960s, this was never an easy proposition).* What made it a doubly exciting thing to have, though, was not just the sense of danger and strangeness--there was plenty of that, to be sure, given that its back artwork features a diagram of how to make a molotov cocktail, and its cover (see above) is a series of Hebrew letters from the Book of Jeremiah that seem ancient, terrible, and unknowable--but also the catalogue that came with it of recent and upcoming releases on Constellation Records, things like Fly Pan Am, Exhaust, A Silver Mt. Zion (before they became A Silver Mt. Zion etc. etc.), Hangedup, Re:, 1-Speed Bike that came with descriptions that made them sound like the music of dreams and the music of nightmares in equal proportion.** 

Those capsule descriptions were alluring because they both matched what I was hearing on Slow Riot--the simultaneously bleak and chiming music behind "Blaise Bailey Finnegan III" seemed to be, without having heard any of these other artists, what the writer meant by "electro-acoustic"--and hinted at worlds beyond that were darker, denser, more challenging, more violent. I remained (and to an extent remain) fascinated by the feel of this stuff as much as by the sound, the weird accruals of emotion that show up in the collision of drones, field recordings, noise, strings, and electronics that Constellation, Kranky, Alien8, and a bunch of other labels peddled in the mid-to-late 1990s and into the early 2000s. 

While it's easy to see now how the space for such music is limited and how it could easily become over-saturated with bands, projects, and solo musicians all working off the same template, that didn't always seem the case. Nevertheless, the whole "Montreal scene" around Godspeed felt exhausting to consider long before Red Sparrowes started releasing stuff that seemed like a parody of Set Fire to Flames (who might have benefited from being parodied, to be honest) or Valley of the Giants put out a concept album about Westworld (though that album is frequently quite beautiful). I've remained fascinated by this style of music--one of the innumerable branches of post-rock--partly because it never quite felt exhausted so much as stagnant, full of good ideas that no one quite knew how to marshal into the next step forward. Those interstitial moments on Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven--like the infamous "Welcome to Arco AM/PM Mini-Market" recording (one of the great joys of my life while I was living in Oregon was to finally go to an Arco AM/PM, though I never got to hear any PA broadcasts while I was there, unfortunately)--were so good at carrying emotion and conceptual meaning, at making the connections between the politics of the band and the album's liner notes, the grainy films behind the band's performances, and the music, but nothing ever really got beyond them (and by Yanqui UXO the band had abandoned them). 

This strand of post-rock was already (perhaps always already), in a certain sense, a pretty hauntological genre, but I've often thought that it would be thrilling to hear a band or musician revisit those generic elements and to take that next step with them. In his essay "Progress versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?,"*** Fredric Jameson discusses the function of science fiction as a genre via its narrative structures and their complex temporal work. Under late capitalism, Jameson claims that the problem facing "historical fictions" is not only that the genre is dated, but also:
It is the relationship to the past which is at issue, and the feeling that any other moment of the past [than that depicted in the particular work] would have done just as well. The sense that this determinate moment of history is, of organic necessity, precursor to the present has vanished into the pluralism of the Imaginary Museum, the wealth and endless variety of culturally or temporally distinct forms, all of which are now rigorously equivalent. . . . In its (post-) contemporary form, this replacement of the historical by the nostalgic, this volatilization of what was once a national past, in the moment of emergence of the nation-states and of nationalism itself is of course at one with the disappearance of historicity from consumer society today, with its rapid media exhaustion of yesterday's events and of the day-before-yesterday's star players (who was Hitler anyway? who was Kennedy? who, finally, was Nixon?).
In contrast to historical fictions, then, Jameson argues that SF works according to a different temporal relationship that restores historicity to a certain extent. As a genre it does not, he suggests, relate to the future(s) it depicts in the sense of acclimating its readers (and society at large) to potential "future shocks" as its:
visions are themselves now historical and dated--streamlined cities of the future on peeling murals--while our lived experience of our greatest metropolises is one of urban decay and blight. That particular Utopian future has in other words turned out to have been merely the future of one moment of what is now our own past.
Given the distance between these dated visions of the future (often now set in our present) and our own lives, and given the impossibility of living to see the realisation of the distant futures predicted, Jameson locates the function of SF not in "images of the future," but in an experience of the present. These narratives "defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and . . . do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization." This is a valuable function, and works to restore an experience of historicity to daily life, because:
the present--in this society, and in the physical and psychic dissociation of the human subjects who inhabit it--is inaccessible directly, is numb, habituated, empty of affect. Elaborate strategies of indirection are therefore necessary if we are somehow to break through our monadic insulation and to "experience," for some first and real time, this "present," which is after all all we have.
For me, post-rock served a similar function (and given the steady diet of SF I consumed growing up, maybe the two were cross-pollinating), its "shock of the new" shocking precisely because it seemed so richly and intensely of the present moment. I do not think it is (or that it is not only), then, a retromaniacal impulse that leads me to dream and wish for a resurgence of this music that seems like it could so precisely and effectively locate me and society in our present.

As a politicized aesthetic statement, the possibilities seem vast, especially the way it might enable a reimagining of the elements of daily life under late capitalism, a transformation of the sonic detritus that surrounds us, into critique, into vision, into a different world. In terms of lost or misplaced futures, the one in which post-rock didn't exhaust itself and its listeners by hardening into a set of rigid dynamics and instrumental tics is the one I feel the absence of most personally. I wasn't old enough, nor was I born in the right country, to experience rave and jungle, to enjoy that shock of the new with its cultural and political vibrancy. For me, post-rock was my avant-garde, "I've never heard anything like this" moment growing up. I'd caught it past its peak, to an extent, and within a few years of discovering it, it was gone (or at least its key players were either on hiatus or lacking in vitality), but post-rock, even in its much derided genre name, seemed to point to something, to a future that was beyond the limits of the present (and at the same time, to highlight and outline just what the limits of that present were). It may not have been as apocalyptic as the vision quoted above, but there was a sense of something coming, some fundamental change driven by monumental forces. Pre-millennial tension and post-millennial anxiety and good, old-fashioned conspiracy theories and complaints about the government combining in various forms of despair, discontent, outrage, and, underneath it all, hope. That future, the one post-rock offered, never came, obviously, and I'm left with old Constellation catalogues and under-listened to pieces of vinyl (now I have mp3s of Slow Riot I can listen to whenever I please) and my memories of what I thought could be.


In the past month and a half, the release that I've listened to most frequently is probably Evian Christ's mix for Dummy, "Duga-Three."**** While he's coming from a different place than those post-rock musicians I loved growing up, in sound and execution, to say nothing of inspiration, "Duga-Three" feels like it should have come out on Constellation or Kranky in about 1999. The drones, the field recordings, the disembodied voices from television and radio broadcasts, it's all there. Joshua Leary (who produces music under his nom de plume [nom d'ordinateur?], Evian Christ) mentions early Tim Hecker as an influence--and that influence is pretty obvious here, especially in the way the melody works in the first section--but the extreme pitch-damaged tones, and the air of half-remembered dreams also calls to mind Boards of Canada, Ghost Box Records, and all the hauntological all-stars of the past decade.***** Given those sounds, it's fitting that Leary offers the following inspiration for the release:
Duga-three is a four-part piece of music I wrote after reading about a Soviet signal transmitter of the same name. It was characterised by the repetitive tapping sound it broadcast, which was sufficiently powerful enough to intercept transitions [sic--I think he means "transmissions"] across the world. After 28 years of transmission, the Duga-3 array was abandoned as mysteriously and unexpectedly as it had appeared. 
I have weird little pockets of mainly useless knowledge about random things and for a little while I was reading about over-the-horizon radar systems, which were used by governments in the mid-late 20th century to detect targets at really long ranges. Because the Duga-3 array was unclaimed during its period of use there was a lot of speculation about what it was actually there to do, and together with the sheer scale of the construction...I dunno I can imagine it really intimidating and I guess I just found that interesting. Visually it is just incredible, there are some amazing photographs of it on the internet. Just kind of gets your imagination going a bit.
Based on the above, you'd be forgiven for assuming this is just another exercise in ostalgie, nothing but Cold War daydreams and Soviet kitsch. It's really quite a remarkable listen, though, and if it doesn't quite do what I hoped some post-rock band would do in 2003, it doesn't feel a million miles away from that. Over the nineteen and a half minutes of "Duga-Three" you are transported: it creates an atmosphere, a coldness and a ghostliness, a haunt(ing), and takes over the space in which you listen to it. I find it endlessly entrancing and fascinating, especially the tapping (it almost sounds like a motor softly turning over) that runs throughout the second half, the most overt nod to Duga-3. 

I also find "Duga-Three" curiously dated and quaint--not just as a result of its inspiration and subject matter--but in the way that it really does feel out of time, like a lost release from another era. This isn't exactly the kind of thing you hear so much of these days--for whatever reason--though ten or fifteen years ago I imagine people would be all about it, as it taps into the same kind of emotional space and resonance as something like William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops or The Conet Project. I was happy to read Leary's answer to the question of how he sees this release fitting into his more rap/bass music oriented work; for Leary the only distinction is the lack of drums. Maybe there's a spark of what caught my eye and fired my imagination (long before it ever caught my ear) about post-rock rumbling in the increasingly polyglot world of bass music, ready to re-emerge and transform itself. If not, though, there's still "Duga-Three," a perfectly elegiac reminder of one of the lost futures of my youth and all its promises.

*I will always be thankful for my parents letting me put things like Loveless and Spiderland and Ege Bamyasi and all sorts of stuff that I was finding out about from the internet on during car rides (mostly) without complaint.
**Thinking about my own relationship with my copy of Slow Riot, I understand the cult of vinyl that exists (and I certainly loved the physical object of the CD--artwork and liner notes at once a great fixation and a source of disappointment by never revealing enough and, at the same time, never deepening the mystery enough). Perhaps if I had more time, money, and space, I would become a collector of vinyl (there's a pretty big second-hand record shop down the street from where I live), have a high-fi, and throw record listening parties.
***A shockingly prescient essay, given that it appeared in 1982.
****That Evian Christ releases music on Tri-Angle makes a lot of sense--while I don't love everything the label puts out, I definitely find their catalogue and aesthetic intriguing, just as I did with Constellation et al. when I was younger.
*****One artist he doesn't mention as an influence but whose work I've found pairs quite well with "Duga-Three" is Fever Ray, whose album remains one of my favourite releases of the past five years.

No comments:

Post a Comment