In this edition of his monthly column, Adam Harper—the premier writer on emergent, underground music—considers musical futurism and finds a paradox in its chilly anti-humanism. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
When I first listened to the opening tracks of Egyptrixx’s recent album A/B til Infinity, my mind’s eye saw an attack on climate refugees by a squadron of drone aircraft. This was not an image I’d thought about before. The year was somewhere between 2020 and 2050; thousands of people, mostly people of color, shambled towards a border carrying hastily packed bags and their distraught children in rain—not intense but steady and oppressive. The border was marked with a hastily erected chain-link fence topped with CCTV cameras, and the refugees might have been attempting to cross from Louisiana into Texas, or Bangladesh into India, or Vietnam into China. Reaching the fence, the refugees began to mass against it, rattling it, and eventually sections of the border gave way, trampled as people ran desperately across.
Someone in an office somewhere makes the call, and next-generation drones are scrambled from the nearest base. Recognizing the lithe V shapes just above the horizon, the crowd panics further. These are not the clunky model aircraft that were once used on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but aerodynamic flying wings like the X-45, armed with heat rays and sonic cannons. It is their old-fashioned bombs, bullets, and missiles that are used within minutes of their arrival at the scene, however, unleashed indiscriminately on people that in the heat of the moment are reduced to illegitimate human surplus.
All this probably doesn’t result from any deliberate intention on Egytprixx’s part—visually at least, the music was linked to semi-abstract alien environments. Nevertheless, as I listened, I was in the bodies of the refugees, feeling utterly trapped and doomed by the climate, by the fence, and by the drone attack. But I was also in the cold metallic bodies of the unmanned aircraft, elegant and deadly as they swooped over the ant-like heat signatures of the refugees. And I was experiencing the scene from a quasi-cinematic, omniscient, more historic point-of-view too, where technological, social, and ecological inevitabilities threaten the human race and its planet. The most frightening thing about this image, however, might not have been citizens being massacred by authorities panicked into violent repression. It was that, if I’m honest (and I ought to be) there was, like in all the recent Hollywood apocalypse and dystopian movies, something very darkly affirming, rewarding, and cathartic about experiencing all this. A post-human death wish.
2013 seemed like the year the future came back. For me, the one major theme reflected in practically every facet of underground music was the return of strange hi-tech sounds and stark, twisted rhythms that seemed to embody hopes and anxieties about the years ahead. Whether or not the many releases that felt so future last year were more explicitly conceptual (appropriating musical styles associated with contemporary and future life or conveying clear messages about it) or whether they were more abstract or functional (such as most of the noise or dance music respectively) they could be read against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world whose growing pains are both deeply exhilarating and deeply disturbing.
The comfortable, optimistic world of the turn of the millennium is now a bittersweet memory. Since then a new technological sublime has emerged that has been seen as radically liberating and radically oppressive, the post-Cold War global political landscape has all but collapsed (in much of its legitimacy, at least) and climate disasters are increasingly common, with future ecological catastrophe a very real probability. The latter scenario in particular is creating an international fear of human-engineered apocalypse not unlike the mid-twentieth-century threat of mutually assured destruction—arguably worse—but an encroaching new normal of automated technological tracking, surveillance, and, ultimately, drone strikes is catching up fast in the dystopia stakes.
How to make music in a world like this? What needs to be said and how to say it? These are precisely the questions future music has been exploring, though the answers are far from conclusive. One thing’s increasingly clear—wealthy white men strumming wistfully on guitars or twiddling analogue gear and evoking hazy halcyon days is not just complacent, ignorant, and privileged but downright offensive in a world of financial crisis, military robots, the surge of the far right, NSA surveillance, and continual severe storm warnings. Music has needed to evolve rapidly or risk this obsolescence, and it has turned to technology and the connotations of technology to do this, creating a kind of arms race with the world around it.
‘Accelerationism’, a name for this arms race, is a relatively new term in philosophy and criticism whose meaning is still being nailed down, but it’s usually associated with a desire to drive socio-political and technological change or dissolution further, sometimes even in dark and destructive ways. The concept keeps popping up, and one of the tracks on Heatsick‘s recent RE-ENGINEERING was called “Accelerationista”. It might be easier to define accelerationism’s view of progress by what it’s not: reactionary or traditional. Accelerationism doesn’t wring its hands over digital technologies being artificial or alienating, doesn’t join a hierarchical political party that sells newspapers in the street, and doesn’t put primary value on the past, the folky, and the physical. Put bluntly, accelerationism is a twenty-first-century futurism, one more aware of the role of capitalism itself than its twentieth-century predecessor.
Futurism is just about a century old these days, and since the days of Marinetti’s enthusiasm for machines, war, and wiping out the old, it has always been cheering on rapid technological change, flirting dangerously with post-humanism and even anti-humanism in the process. While the category ‘human’ can mean a lot of things (and should), as a descriptive word it refers to something considered warm, familiar, organic, and down-to-earth. ‘Human’ or not, futurism is the opposite of all this, and one of the prevailing tendencies within the recent future turn has been for what you might call ‘coldness’ It’s even in the titles of two of the more well-known releases, James Ferraro‘s Cold and Logos’s Cold Mission. Musically, coldness has been expressed as minimal textures and synth timbres, especially metallic, often with the technological generation or processing of the human voice too. Visually (on album covers and in fashion), coldness is represented by the colors black, grey, white, and especially blue—if you type ‘digital’ into Google Image Search, the colors that come up are overwhelmingly blue.
But coldness is about more than just a sound and a look, and it’s more than the coldness of a technological being, too. Coldness is what we fear lies beyond human capability. Coldness is the gap between human intentions and outcomes. It’s the uncanny valley of the human reflected in the non-human. Coldness is governments and corporations not giving a shit about your well-being because of what are held to be socio-political realities, such as the inevitability of neoliberal capitalism or the idea that people choose to be disadvantaged. Coldness is violent, often fatal crimes against women, people of color, poor people, and LGBT+ people still being much more tolerated than crimes against the privileged. Coldness is communication systems on unimaginable scales that reduce you to clumps of information without your permission for the purpose of profit and control. They call it global warming, but coldness is also the planet’s climate punishing humans for their short-sighted use of the Earth’s resources. Coldness is the way you feel when you know all this and, like the drones, what you need to have to survive and wield power. And more simply, the underground is cold because the mainstream is warm, sickly warm. The messy, twee, DIY human-ness of decades of indie culture—initially a reaction to the artificial, over-blown pop and rock of the 1970s and 1980s—is now all over the media being used to affirm, sell, and soundtrack a privileged lifestyle. And it’s now a horrible lie, one at least as horrible as what the first punks spat at.
Cold sounds are the surface, the first steps into a timely exploration of these much larger, culture-level fears of coldness. People regularly bemoan the lack of political engagement in contemporary music, but to me the hundreds of cold dance tracks spun in 2013 are at least as galvanizing as any protest song conveying a concrete message. Labels like Night Slugs, Fade to Mind, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, #FEELINGS, Lost Codes, and more provide an open-ended space in which to explore the waxing and waning of hitherto traditional ideas surrounding the human, like an auditory science fiction. That all this occupies the same aesthetic spectrum on which the tracks are sensually and physically pleasurable makes them all the more compelling. Take Ynfynyt Scroll’s latest #FEELINGS EP Drone Warfare—though it makes a few nods to early techno and vogue house, it makes the alarm over military robots an explicit dimension of its weird textures both in its blurb and with track titles such as “Lethal Autonomy” (the remix of which by Helix is the EP’s highlight).
A/B til Infinity and Cold Mission seem to elegantly combine technological and climatological futures—they express the retreat from nature into metallic edifices, incorporating the sounds of rain outside them. These edifices could be as much as subterranean cities built to shelter humanity’s dwindling numbers from a climate that can no longer support life (circa 2150), or as little as the spurning of the physical world for the black mirror of digital virtuality by millions of tech-consumers in the here and now. But the point is it means both of these and everything in between, too. Cold Mission‘s title track is built from the sounds of streaming water, a storm, angular, dissonant synths, mournful strings, and what might be someone repeatedly knocking on a metallic hull and calling out. These few well-chosen elements can mean so much: is it someone looking for survivors? Is it a climate refugee or some other disadvantaged person faced with an oncoming storm begging to be let in to the technocratic living space, the bunker? Or are they begging to be let out? “Swarming” paints a similar picture but more luridly, and apparently from the interior. Who’s loading guns? Again, what is that knocking on a metallic surface, more violent now? Is someone—or something—at the airlock? Human or not, it’s the future itself, laying siege to us.
This more open, semi-abstract cold futureness is not limited by genre. It’s been in the experimental pop forms of the likes of FKA Twigs, Cyan Kid, and James Ferraro. It’s also in the plethora of conceptually evocative releases that may perhaps be heard as forms of satire—ADR, Yen Tech, much DIS-affiliated music, vaporwave, and so on—landing the listener in an ambiguous zone where positives and negatives are undifferentiable. Whose music is this, mine or The Man’s? Why? Is it OK that I’m enjoying this or not?
The future has been all over electronic music, too (when it’s not been retro and/or analog-noise obsessed, that is), in labels like PAN, Kaleidoscope, and Zoology, and albums like Oneohtrix Point Never‘s R Plus Seven. One of my favorite areas of cold future has been the genreless work of Diamond Black Hearted Boy on Soundcloud and on his Bandcamp releases Father, Protect Me and zᵉʳº. His tracks are Rorschach tests for futureness, initially coming across as haphazard collages of random sonic content but slowly they become weirdly and woefully deep impressionistic portraits of tomorrow, sucking you into a maze of wires and wormholes. Usually they incorporate violent or sultry smooth digital noises, sometimes with suggestive vocal mantras such as “I don’t want the real,” “disappear with me,” or “false god, fallen god… even though I’m a false god I’m still a god.” He might be talking about the opportunities and temptations of the technological revolution we’re currently living through. But DBHB’s tracks are abstract enough to feel like the distant future too. The ultra-minimal zᵉʳº is nothing more than the words “zero” and “I miss you” repeating against the fading in and out of a sombre drone. Half an hour into it, its sense of abject melancholy and nothingness began to suggest to me a last trace of humanity, an endlessly repeating beacon set up to signal throughout the empty cosmos the deathbed of our species on its tiny rock, a gravestone—and zᵉʳº‘s sheer, punishing length hammers home the coldness of eternity.
While futurism’s coldness and anti-humanism can serve as a warning and as catharsis, there can also be something darker lying behind it. Representations of repressive forces are not necessarily themselves repressive (see Ferraro’s Silica Gel and Fatima Al Qadiri’s Genre-Specific Xperience and Desert Strike), but the line between satirical evocations of violence and genuine celebrations of it can be paper thin, imperceptible even, and accelerationism arguably straddles the two. Marinetti was involved in Italian fascist politics, and some see the bloody-mindedness of futurism as innately fascist. Punk, which semi-consciously represented contemporary social collapse, nevertheless quickly became a useful idiom for fascists and misogynists, and the industrial / noise, misanthropy, and Nazi-like imagery of Boyd Rice’s music eventually proved representative of the artist’s fascist views and activities. More generally, violent mechanical sounds have long been associated with masculine power and machismo. At its worst, futurism is an anti-humanist celebration of destruction, power, and competition, but at its best, hopefully, it explores pertinent anxieties and ambiguities about these things within the metaphorical field of art while forging new expressive tools. At the least, it demands that we get our politics sorted.
But not all that is future is grim, anti-human, and cold. 2013’s future music regularly mixed its coldness with dazzling glimpses of utopian pleasure—reminders of the legitimately positive and liberating possibilities of technology. Cold Mission achieved this in its opening track by juxtaposing its angular rhythms with suave, optimistic fragments of melody. Contact Lens, Blank Banshee, and DV-i are good examples of producers who might occupy a productive middle ground between lurid satire of digital kitsch and a genuinely pleasurable twenty-first-century musical ride. While some listeners will find the high-pitched twinkly jungle of DV-i’s “Shenzhen Miracle” (on the DIS-premiered Christmas album Christmas 2.0 Forever) an abomination, and might even prize it for that, others, such as myself, will simply be impressed by its imaginative technical achievement and energized by its upbeat mood and ultra cuteness. The track has a forward momentum that makes Rustie’s famously sparkly bangers sound like petrol-powered tractors. The more positive side of future-cold sounds is more prevalent among younger producers on Bandcamp and Soundcloud, for example in indigo beats, an area which saw more weird-textured but accomplished and blissful albums from Blank Banshee, BLK SMK, Horse Head, Party Trash, and MiaMee later in 2013. All these worked towards building a future sound that can be ‘cold’ and digital—and even carry connotations of luxury and the virtual world—without suggesting grimness, falsehood, and oppression.
This is an important strategy, for while the new digital sublime is regularly portrayed as unnatural, trivial, or fearful (and often not wrongly), it is also a lifeline for minorities of all kinds and an exponential multiplication of human expressive and representational possibilities. I like to think of a future that’s not just about being imprisoned or killed by the climate or technology, but one in which more people and more diverse kinds of people are liberated by new technological and aesthetic potentials and the signature new sounds they can derive from them. In this respect, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the instrumentals of Mykki Blanco (such as the new “Booty Bamboo”), Le1f, Zebra Katz, or Future Brown sound so sonically revolutionary.
Blanco sometimes uses the term ‘mutant’, recalling the people born with extraordinary powers and consequently oppressed by society in Marvel’s X-Men comics and films, who have long been regarded as a metaphor for minority groups. ‘Mutant’ and ‘alien’ are great words for describing weird, futuristic, and avant-garde music, and while they can be abusive terms used to put undue distance between people and heighten difference, in Blanco’s case they serve as a positive identification, introduction, and celebration of difference. Similarly, African-American avant-jazz musician Sun Ra described himself as an alien, and today, singer Janelle Monáe has styled herself as an android in exploring the place of African-American and other oppressed people within history. ‘Queer’ is a more general, inclusive term for gender and sexual difference that has been reclaimed positively, and so much of the music released in 2013 has in its weird and futuristic qualities (much of the cybernetic strains of 2013 dance were closely tied to black and gay traditions of vogue house) cultivated a general queerness and difference that most tired old guitar music simply no longer speaks to. People who need a different world and an expression of their difference will make and listen to different music—this, surely, is the meaning of the underground.
We cannot know the future—futuristic art is always an open question—but we can turn towards it, face it and prepare for it in music. We can test our dreams and nightmares as we listen, sorting the one from the other and changing ourselves in the process. And after 2013, no one can say that musical futures are dead. ~
Adam Harper is the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making. To read more editions of Pattern Recognition, click here.