In this edition of his monthly column, Adam Harper—the premier writer on emergent, underground music—examines the new album by one of experimental pop’s most capricious players. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
Up there, there’s Drake and Kanye, raging and weeping in their gloomy fortresses. Down here, under the dust, sirens and steaming vents, under the sidewalk and the rattling subway, under the dripping pipes and skeletons, here’s our James Ferraro, standing guard over a kingdom of rats.
The opening of NYC, Hell 3:00 AM, an electronic voice saying the word “money” on repeat, is about as tired and aggressive as Ferraro—or rather, what he’s been known for—can get. It’d be depressing if it wasn’t so funny, and funny if it wasn’t so depressing—no more winking and jestering, no more dressing it up, no stirring currency symbols and consumer propaganda into the slush. The other electronic voices scattered throughout the album are just as stark, rotted down to their predictable, empty cores. MTV, Pepsi, capitalism, violence, digitally compressed sex, yeah. He and others say it over and over again, everybody ‘gets’ it, everybody agrees that yeah, contemporary living is messed up and worrying and we’ll have that acted out and tamed, everybody pretends, but we’ll go through it all anyway. Sorry we ran out of milk, but here’s your shot of James Ferraro, now fuck off.
That exhaustion is everywhere in the album, and it feels disquietingly honest for it. Because ultimately NYC, Hell 3:00 AM isn’t really about all that. I wonder if people are going to approach this album too much in the context of Far Side Virtual, because since that landmark album Ferraro has been positioned as—and expected to be—the pop art clown. If they’re intent on hearing this Ferraro in NYC, Hell 3:00 AM, all they’ll hear is a brooding but limp version of FSV, and to a certain extent this seems part of the point. But NYC Hell resonates in different ways and for different reasons—an observation less surprising when you consider that Ferraro has been putting out releases for nearly a decade, each one generating its own unique world, and each its own emotionalization of that world. Probably one of the most versatile artists of his generation, this ongoing creative process has now taken Ferraro well beyond hypnagogic pop of 2009 and the vaporwave he was briefly at a tangent to in 2011.
But Ferraro might never have been closer to his contemporaries than on NYC, Hell 3:00 AM—this is much the same zone as Oneohtrix Point Never‘s Replica, Julia Holter‘s Tragedy, How To Dress Well, Laurel Halo‘s Quarantine, Pharmakon’s Abandon, Dean Blunt, 18+, the more upsetting of Will Burnett’s albums, and others. And because of this, the release might not initially shine as brightly with originality and purpose as his previous longplayers did in their times, but listen on and let the sentiment seep in and you might find there’s something more than a surface here, something that feels like vertigo.
Rather than being amazed, dazzled and possessed, NYC, Hell 3:00 AM weighs you down like a ghoul on your back and a concrete block chained to your legs. Far from presenting a particular concept—you don’t know what it’s about, can’t put your finger on a unifying reference or a commentary, can’t quite make the ends meet—the album’s power is in its dragging you into darkness. It’s like a flashlight shone into a pool in an otherwise lightless cavern, illuminating a few motes in a dull greyish beam that fades several feet later, leaving little impression of how far down it goes. Ferraro has been increasingly moving away from tangible concepts by degrees since Sushi. Now there’s this, a mystery you feel pressing you down before you comprehend it, resigning you to truths that are greater and more modern than mimicry, something you can pour yourself into.
And in this case, what a profound dejection there is in the lumbering, fatigued rhythms and dark randomness, not just echoing but frequently outweighing the gothicism of the past year’s biggest miserablist hypes (Kanye, Drake, How To Dress Well, Blunt). In this context, NYC, Hell 3:00 AM is not so much predictable as inevitable. Like terrorism, surveillance, government shutdowns, global warming.
It’s immediately evident that something different to yesterday’s Ferraro is going on when you hear the opening timbres. The orchestral sounds, a midnight philharmonic of strings and parping winds, greet you as a ragtag band of ancient holy troglodytes, and for the album’s duration they stand around in the background, hooded in robes, a sublime, often monastic emotion in them, sagging, sighing, wheezing. Maybe they’re the beings who have long occupied these caves before, who have long understood these inevitabilities and can sombrely carry our debilitated bodies into the subterranean lake, the old weird religion whose gnarled arms we can fall into.
The other sounds are metallic but rusty, sleek but dilapidated. Ringing and chiming metallophone colors have been used throughout underground music recently and in a futurist spirit, but here they’re the exposed ribs of century-old skyscrapers stripped for parts, or unfinished skyscrapers, or collapsed ones. They’re also the enervating glockenspiel of helpless immaturity, and the weirdly transfigured, oppressive Big Ben of a New Year’s Eve spent on codeine. Then there are the sounds that are like dirty walls, peeling fire hydrants, and billowing smoke. They involve the playing of complex continuous samples at different pitches, using them as notes to make up tonal contrasts and riffs, a technique that’s often been used by OPN, and Ferraro uses it to make melodies out of junk, kipple, and escaping air.
Yet he isn’t so much creating these sounds as they’re bothering him, eavesdropping on him, hemming him in, and scuttling up next to him. Sometimes they’re scaffolding through which we glimpse him, scraps of gently flapping tarpaulin hanging from it. Sometimes they bunch together, or glitch and spin like non-player characters, masking each other rather than comprising an orderly, pristine electronic habitat. As they perform, the speckled, downcast members of Ferraro’s arcane backing band don’t make eye contact with each other or anyone else, but somehow their disunity settles, like silt.
In such a shadowy sonic environment, it’s the gestures that come through first. The urgent but numbed scrubbing of hands and forearms in slow motion of “QR JR”, a ritual intermittently pierced by clock chimes and anxiety. The thin, suspended vocal of “Beautiful Jon K”, a human monument. In “Upper East Side Pussy”, a monastic refrain rolled like a carpet and pushed up the stairs as if after the occupant of a home has passed away. The elegant downward-panning organ of “Close Ups”, eventually propping itself up on a glimmer of positivity after seven long bars—one of the album’s sturdier structures, a bed for Ferraro’s uncomfortably prone voice. And everywhere, beleaguered motion and grooves like a sluggish river.
One of the first things that struck me about New York City when I visited it recently is that actually it’s not quite the sparkling playground of modernity and glamor that it seemed like when I was a kid watching films and TV. Manhattan is a twentieth-century urban environment—dank, crowded and scratched up, wearing a five o’clock shadow. Scruffy little eateries flying old colors, stone tunnels and unromantic stairwells seemed to me slightly more representative of the city than the handful of garish video billboards bolted onto elder structures at some intersections. I suppose the New York City of my dreams has relocated to China somewhere. Today the city seems to be becoming its own more ancient and grizzled thing, a London or, especially, a Berlin: long hounded and gashed by the bitterest international conflicts and left with a humbling, melancholic dignity, even with the brightest culture scurrying through its arteries. And as last year’s storm hinted, New York’s future will have more to do with the weather than sudden, direct attacks—flooded subways, flooded streets and, one day, the lower floors of the city’s postcard architectures irreversibly inundated.
NYC, Hell 3:00 AM is not just what happens to a city, but what happens to the public façade, the lungs, the muscles, and the mind, too. Having been one of the leading figures to mesmerize us with ambivalent projections onto the future, he now supplies us with the most beautifully and troublingly convincing account of it. ~
James Ferraro’s NYC, Hell 3:00 AM is out now on Hippos in Tanks. 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.