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Psychedelic Urbanism: Mark Fisher recommends John Foxx and the Maths’ Evidence

Mark Fisher is the noted blogger known as K-Punk, the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, and an artist whose exhibition On Vanishing Land has been extended until April 6th at London’s Showro gallery.

On Vanishing Land features new, commissioned music from John Foxx and Gazelle Twin—as well as Baron Mordant, Raime, Ekoplekz, and more—both of whom are key artists for Fisher’s idea of psychedelic urbanism.


“I talk/ to you/ in my sleep/ and I know/you/ can hear/ me …” So speak-sings John Foxx on “Talk”, a track on Evidence, the most recent of his collaborations with synth-archivist Benge. The “you” in Foxx’s songs is not usually the fantasy lover addressed by most pop songs, the object serenaded because they seem to complete us or reprimanded because they have left us bereft. Foxx’s “you” is another kind of entity, an interloper from “beneath your dreams” who possesses the allure of the elsewhere. Foxx first recorded “Talk” on the album The Shape of Things to Come from 2011, but listening back, it’s hard not to hear that as a rudimentary sketch for the version that appears here. Reconstructed and augmented by Matthew Dear, “Talk” now has a tactile immensity and a dancefloor velocity: this is dream techno, music for a David Lynch nightclub. The most startling change from the original, though, is that the figure to whom Foxx talks now gives a reply. Voiced by Dear, Foxx’s dream partner speaks as if foreign to human language itself, in a series of scrambled image-fragments (“white fields of reduction”, “a garden of ashes and white trees”) that are as obliquely suggestive as they are enigmatic.

At least since Ultravox’s 1978 album Systems of Romance, John Foxx’s music has been about opening up these kinds of dream terrains. That makes Evidence both anomalous and timely in 2013. Anomalous, because such dreamspaces are very far from the hyper-conscious panic of the dominant digital culture, with its blizzard of trance-inhibiting alerts and micro-demands. But its very distance from this communicational frenzy is one reason that Evidence is also timely. More than ever, we need a reprieve from the wearying pressures of being ourselves, selling ourselves, being trapped in our own reflection. Nothing captures the denuded and harried state of our current culture’s dream life better than the militarized unconscious of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where there is scarcely a moment’s relief from anxiety. The dreamspace Foxx has explored is another place entirely: eerily tranquil, lucid, luminescent. Systems of Romance’s “When You Walk Through Me”, its drum pattern lifted from “Tomorrow Never Knows”, its lyrics tripping the listener from domestic space into oneiric topographies (“I turn around to switch the scene/ the room dives like a submarine”) was the most explicit clue to what Foxx was doing: reinventing psychedelia. Yet Foxx’s take on psychedelia, on Systems of Romance and subsequently, apprehended it as more than a rock genre, and more than a simple translation of drug experience into music. Instead, psychedelia became a technique, or set for techniques, for accessing what on Systems of Romance’s “Slow Motion”, Foxx called “another time”: a dilated time, a dream time, where the pressures of everyday busy-ness, of holding onto identity, dissolve, and suddenly you are moving unhurriedly in new daylight, wearing someone else’s clothes.

The extension of rock via electronic textures was one deviation from the Haight Ashbury template. But equally significant was the way that Foxx constellated psychedelia with a trajectory in 20th century experimental art, film, and literature. The atria, avenues, and piazzas in Foxx’s songs have always felt like they were the successors of the cool gardens, sunlit colonnades, and deserted beaches dreamt up by Delvaux, Di Chirico, and Dali in the early 20th century, as well as the labyrinths and follies constructed by Robbe-Grillet, Resnais, and Duras in the 1950s and ’60s. The way that Foxx compresses avant-garde methods and imagery into a popular form is strikingly similar to what his contemporaries David Lynch and Christopher Priest did with film and the novel respectively. Like Lynch and Priest, Foxx endlessly returns to moments of depersonalization, of disassociation, of becoming someone else, or of becoming nobody. Priest is actually the closer parallel. While the tenor of Lynch’s hallucinatory films is usually a deranging terror, in Priest’s novels such as A Dream of Wessex, The Affirmation, and The Glamour, the melting of identities and angles takes place in the same atmosphere of Mediterranean languor that characterizes much of Foxx’s work.

Evidence is another contribution to the dream urbanism that Foxx has developed over the past 35 years. The predilection for city landscapes location is one more difference from ’60s psychedelic rock, which tended to prefer the bucolic to the urban. Yet, as is clear from his ongoing film project, Cathedral Oceans, Foxx’s dream city is a place in which the verdant and the urban are reconciled, where manicured vertical gardens give way to overgrown ruins. We’re lured back here on Evidence’s “Walk” by the gentle but irresistible gravitational pull of an undulating bass that makes us feel as if we’re gliding down avenues and riverside terraces. The track is a reminder that, for Foxx, the process of walking through cities has always offered psychedelic possibilities. In the city, the opportunity to shuck off old habits, to experiment with new personas, is always there, should we walk down an unfamiliar street, or start up a conversation with the right kind of stranger. And even in the busiest of cities, there are spaces of fugitive calm, as we hear on the extraordinarily beautiful “Only Lovers Left Alive”, a love song in the spirit of Marc Chagall or Max Ernst, a ballad for a city sleeping in summer.

At a time when we are starved of new sounds and sensations, the conceit behind Foxx’s collaboration with Benge—that only analogue instruments would be used—has allowed the pair to conjure up what is in effect an alternative present for electronic pop. The result is an album that sounds as contemporary as anything else that is likely to be released this year. Benge’s bass-heavy mixing feels as if it has been informed by dubstep, but there is no unseemly straining for relevance here. In fact, Evidence is shot through with a serene confidence. It projects a world that others are invited to dream as well. Benge and Matthew Dear aren’t the only collaborators. San Francisco’s Soft Moon feature on the title track, Psychedelia 1.0 remade as a cyberpunk detective story about closed circuit TV images. But it’s the involvement of Gazelle Twin, aka Elizabeth Walling, that generates some of Evidence’s most stunning moments. In any sane world, Gazelle Twin’s 2011 debut album The Entire City would have made her the queen of 21st century art pop. On Evidence, Foxx and Benge reconstruct—or redream—The Entire City’s “Changelings”, just as Gazelle Twin rebuilds “A Falling Star” from Foxx and the Maths’ first LP, Interplay. The tracks provide a bridge between Foxx’s world and Gazelle Twin’s, another dream exchange. On “Changelings”, Foxx and Benge summon a quiet synthetic storm around Walling’s multi-tracked vocal. The new version of “Changelings” suggests the kind of apocalypse that might have happened while we were laughing off Mayan prophecies last year: not a Hollywood-style spectacle but a Gnostic revelation available only to those sensitive enough to grasp it, a subtle yet decisive erasure that Gazelle Twin seems to welcome more than dread: “I came and I saw/ I saw the end of the world we know/You came and you saw/You’ll disappear before the next star rises …” Perhaps the world we have known for too long disappeared without our noticing it. Perhaps we have passed through our period of insomniac anxiety, and new dreamings are possible at last.~


John Foxx and the Maths’ Evidence is out now via Metamatic.

Published April 02, 2013. Words by Mark Fisher.