We are currently in the middle of a crisis, except it’s a crisis that doesn’t recognize itself as a crisis at all. It is, fundamentally, a crisis of sense. Which is difficult to articulate, because we cannot objectively delineate the real source of our suffering—just its ghostly outline. Which is why there is a growing trend in contemporary electronic music to strive for a kind of blurring or dimming effect, which speaks of a tragedy or a trauma without tangible or discernible origins. The melodies are intentionally garbled and distraught, and the song structures are purposefully atrophied and irresolute. The concrete image has been obliterated, smashed to pieces, and some kind of reassembly has to take place in the quiet chaos of the fall-out.
In the slow ash-grey dust clouds of all the demolished images, one can sense figures re-emerging, barely touching, murmuring, exchanging inaudible scraps of information, discarding them. Only as figures they’re indeterminate and faceless, escaping a more complete form, straining for structure, haunted by a persistent lack, wheeling somewhere in between restlessness and sadness—not fluid, but gaseous. In an article recommending James Blake’s exemplar second album Overgrown (2012), writer and critic Mark Fisher wrote that in his music “disaffection languishes listlessly, incapable of even recognizing itself as sadness…unsure of itself, caught up in all kinds of impasses.” It is then a kind of digitally manipulated melancholy: the feeling of not quite knowing what to feel, the feeling of not knowing how to feel at all.
Similarly, DJ and producer Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison) is also interested in our “crisis of sense.” The critical difference is that he goes back one stage in the process of sonic manipulation, to the point right before its vague re-neutralization into something we can (almost) touch and trace (where a certain subjectivity is present, even if it isn’t reconciled), to the point of immediate impact. Because he is for the most part interested in documenting the sources of our unusual suffering, those initial shocks that brought about the trauma in the first place. Nothing “languishes listlessly” in his music; all those slowly orbiting fragments are drawn back together in furious rotation, sucked inexorably in, towards a volatile core. The mood never stabilizes; madness reigns supreme.
For the most severe or abstract flights in Ellison’s solo discography aren’t exactly flights at all. He doesn’t appear all that interested in transcending the processes of the material world in his music—not explicitly, anyway. He’s interested in amplifying these processes; he’s wading right through the static. It’s something like realism, or what you might call “technological realism,” for it seems to study the destructive forces that determine our age, in all their immediacy: flux, chaos, disorientation, competition, collision, nervousness, discorporation, disembodiment etc. etc. It’s worth thinking of his music not so much as an act of conscious deconstruction—violating reality—but as the victim of ongoing deconstruction, external to it. No thought completes its trajectory; no idea achieves the fullness or the depth it quite promises. On the track, “Dance of the Pseudo Nymph,” two minutes of wild inexorable growth disintegrates prematurely into a frenetic and incongruous clatter of percussion; on “Recoiled” an idea arises, expands promisingly for a moment, hits against a wall, tries again, gets distracted, tries something different, glitches, all before the whole thing burns out completely from either boredom or exhaustion. Nothing is quite finished in his music—there’s a whole list of tracks that are severed unexpectedly, dismembering abruptly at around the one or two minute mark (see “Melt,” or “Physics for Everyone!” for example).
And yet despite the lack a conspicuous narrative or end-goal in his music, there are in it vague warning signs and flashes, something premonitory, as if it’s talking to us in a language we don’t quite fully understand yet. “The challenge”, music critic Tom Moon writes, “is to maintain a center, to not surrender one’s attention to every passing parade…it seems for Flying Lotus, the first imperative is to keep moving.” Ellison’s music thus provides a solid entry point for a different and more immediate critique of contemporary conditions, a special type of dialogue for engaging and reacting with the world around you, where words have demonstrably failed. Played up against your environment as you move (preferably on some form of public transport, or in a crowd) fast through the city, and as you track and navigate other people’s movements across it too, it has the unique ability to thrust open and illuminate hidden imperceptible networks and relations, ordinarily welded shut. Like a vast autopsy, whole cities loosed from their fixtures.
The place to start might be Pattern+Grid World. Far from Ellison’s best work, it might just be his most instructive. As a body of music it demands your attention. (And his albums do seem to suggest literal bodies, being affected and corrupted and disfigured; there’s something weirdly biological about the way the music grows, suffers, screams, leaves scars.) But not in the way required of by an overtly complex or difficult work of art —in other words, not in the slow, “reflective” sense. Rather, like the accelerated technological rhythms that are spawning so many nervous and defective human beings, this is obsessive, exhaustive, insatiable, and attention-seeking music. It’s disarming, abrupt, forcible, and likely contagious. Each piece is congested with these paroxysmal microscopic synth/bass arrangements that are as unfulfilling as they are asphyxiating—as they are entirely infectious and addictive. It’s nearly impossible to withdraw, to break out, to relax. On “Time Vampires,” there’s a queasy influx of musical ideas, all clashing and colliding and mutating, all leading nowhere in particular. This is music at war with itself, struggling for an equilibrium that never quite materializes. It’s music at war with you, like malignant cells metastasising in living tissue.
Ellison is obsessed with these compulsive and demanding frequencies. And what’s profound is that their composition is for the most part wholly digestible, familiar even. It’s as if, in a deeply damaged way, something embedded in their design appeals to us on a subconscious plane, wherein the mundane and the everyday becomes alienating, estranging, and yet wholly intoxicating. Fragmentation is our new reality. You’re not in control of yourself; we’re living one prolonged out-of-body experience. We just don’t notice. The point is that the true irregularity of everything heard and sensed on Pattern+Grid World and elsewhere in Ellison’s music is disguised, structurally, by a kind of flat functionality, the vague impression of a purpose, motivated by the promise of a satisfactory or more wholesome ending, as conventional melodies try to beat back the intensive din of static interference. Of course, instead, Pattern+Grid World just seems to recycle itself infinitely, frustratingly, nightmarishly, like the record carries on reverberating spasmodically even after you’ve finished with it. It’s as if the only truly realistic outcome, glimpsed on the track “Kill Your Co-Workers,” once the machines give up (or not, for that matter), is some form of mutual eschatological destruction.
Go beyond Pattern+Grid World and like a musical extension of what Basquiat achieved in painting, Ellison’s music is dangerously overloaded with ideas: little bits of dialogue, hovering skeletal images, cutups of machinery and architecture, shreds of information, a constant feverish feed of alerts and notifications. I don’t think Ellison’s hiding anything amongst this chaos. There are no cryptic connotations. Rather, it feels like a sincere attempt to comprehend and scrutinize, and in a sense recreate, the mad flow of empty signs that makes up the bulk of our technological currency, our communications landscape—this strange empty automatic language. Perhaps best realized on his albums Los Angeles and Cosmogramma, this insane flow assaults and shocks and redirects the composition of the music like an implacable torrent of pop-ups, spam email, and frivolous Internet click-bait, so that at times the structure is all pulling apart and splintering and buckling and collapsing under the pressure (see, “Pickled” or “Electric Candyman,” for example). Even the track’s names appear as if re-assembled at random by an autonomous search engine, in a failed attempt to realistically reproduce human discourse. “German Haircut,” “Beginners Falafel,” “Pet Monster Shotglass,” “Parisian Goldfish,” etc. Or there are those that sound as if intercepted and re-appropriated at random from a swamp of scrambled, half-finished and disorganized interactive exchanges: “All the Secrets,” “Mmmhmm,” “Only if You Wanna,” “me Yesterday/Corded.”
Accumulating and piling up this way, catastrophically, without borders, it’s easy to forget that there are people (back again to bodies), albeit faceless, existing in amongst his music, that we frequently encounter human voices, sometimes only the very barest of shreds (see “Sleepy Dinosaur”), trapped underneath: a chorus of garbled vocal samples on the track “me Yesterday/Corded,” speak like confused and contorted cries for help, partially lost in a slow-crawling fog of sound, and Thom Yorke’s layered vocals on “…and the World Laughs with You,” work to create an effect like muffled conversation, a buried web of dialogue, trembling against winds of hissing static. And if it is a portrait, then it is the estranged form of the average workaday city dweller that we’re gazing at, hauled along as a helpless appendage of the metropolis, and as an appendage of the music, too.
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that his music is of the city. This is Ellison’s fertile wilderness: Los Angeles, New York, London etc., an unforgiving landscape of restlessly competing and consuming human subjects. And like it, everything in his music is fighting and bustling blindly for space, light, air (what sounds like a sharp intake of breath spikes repetitively across the beat on the track “Sao Paulo”), straining for direction, for purpose: people packed together, infinitely “connected,” never really touching, bristling with a kind of unexplored violence. And whilst Ellison’s music imagines the cities more traditional vibrations (pollution, sprawl, traffic, waste etc., the accumulative force of too much humanity, like the violent swarm of industrial energy realized on tracks like “Riot”), it seems at times to pay closer attention to those rhythms which we have wholly assimilated, those that flow through us, effortlessly, unseen. Here, the city escapes all sense of hardened territory and becomes instead a vast network of smooth flows: escalators, subway trains, chilly air-conditioned office spaces, shopping malls, treadmills, constantly intersecting mobile alerts and transactions, electronic advertising boards, juice-bars, etc. The resultant effect here is not so much an inundation of the senses, rather, a bizarre indefinite trance. This is the real horror show: gentle oblivion. Indeed, the most “ordered” and “conventional” pieces in his discography—something like “Tiny Tortures” or “Ready Err Not,” for example—are underscored by a kind of devastating precariousness. There’s a trembling even morose immanence to all of it: soft putty eyelids twitching feverishly in REM sleep, drones silently stalking the skies like slick featherless carrion bird, cameras rolling, data accumulating, total sleep, total war.
What to do then, faced with all this information, all this heavy interrogation? If on his older records the imperative is to simply keep moving, then his most recent album, You’re Dead! did something a bit different. Unlike earlier projects, You’re Dead! doesn’t entirely engulf you, leaving you all naked and frazzled and fatigued. Thematically, it offers the listener a more coherent point of departure—or perhaps just a wider window to vault through. It is, of course, about death, and dying. But more importantly, it is about learning how to confront death, when we have erased death altogether. The sounds are intermittently more organic, fleshly. And there’s a clear passage we have to undertake, even if the outcome remains wholly contingent. Because it spreads and displays out in front of you all of the miscellaneous fragments and disassociated parts that merely pass through his earlier work, and provokes you—in rare moments of sparse beauty—to remodel them into something new, and perhaps “better.” Indeed, Ellison might have replaced the exclamation mark in the album’s title with a giant taunting question mark. Because it’s your job to arrest and return its cold imposing gaze: this is what we are now, the machines won’t go away—not until we do. It’s about making the best of a dreadful accident. The approach isn’t really exclusive to You’re Dead! and it shouldn’t really be exclusive to art. That is, if there is promise of a greater fulfillment in Ellison’s music—and beyond it—then it is down to the listener to work backwards—patiently, selectively, and not without a sense of humor, to reconstruct and reconnect all those broken and scattered pieces into a more sensitive, stable, and cohesive whole, into something altogether more human.
Photo credit: featured image.