Wednesday, February 24, 2021

falling out of digital love

Here's my paean to "Digital Love" and Discovery, part of a terrific NPR Music multi-authored tribute to Daft Punk - which touches on the proto-chillwave / yacht rock anticipating retromaniac moves on that album, and then the back-to-analogue gesture of Random Access Memories. (As discussed further in this interview with the duo I did for New York Times). 


Here's a portion of a talk I did for the 2013 symposium Tomorrow Never Knows in Glasgow, that takes a deeper look at the themes and procedures of Random Access Memories

Probably the most high profile example of the uncanny temporality of the 21st Century is one of 2013’s biggest pop music events. One of the few that could honestly be described as an Event in the old sense of the word. But if Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories comes to define  2013, it’ll be through rejecting 2013.

It’s an album that is full of references to time, transience, the notion of a lost future, and memory.  The song “Fragments of Time”, for instance, is about instant nostalgia, this sort of future anterior syndrome when we experience rapture or epiphany, then immediately project ahead to looking back at it. The title Random Access Memories itself is a pun on computer memory versus human memory.

Musically, the whole project was informed by a paradox specific to Daft Punk’s own dilemma as artists who had done sample-based dance music in the late Nineties and early 2000s, and taken that as far as they could. How to go forward? Daft Punk decided the only way was to go back.  Partly because the sounds they’d helped to pioneer in the Nineties as prominent figures in techno-house culture had become the norm. Daft Punk-like sounds make up so much of what you hear on Top 40 radio in America today.  The future-rush that those kind of electronic and digitally processed transmitted to listeners in the 90s and which felt like a preview of  the 21st Century, that’s necessarily now gone. Becoming omnipresent and everyday has made these sounds banal and mundane – at best, not futurism but NOW-ism.

In reaction to digital overdrive and the burn-out it induces, Daft Punk decided to go analogue. Random Access Memories is a whole-sale reversion to the late 70s and early eighties: slick disco-funk in the vein of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Chic, The Whispers and Earth Wind and Fire; Fleetwood Mac and Eagles style soft rock; late period progressive rock and New Wave at its most radio-friendly (The Cars, for instance).   The cut-off point for this time travel exercise is that point in the early-to-mid Eighties when Fairlight samplers, sequenced rhythms, and MIDI become the state of the art in recording studios.  All that, along with the kind of computer software that came later and that Daft Punk once used, is rejected, in favor of  high-calibre musicianship and live drumming from the session sticksman who worked for Michael Jackson.

Two of the hallmark impulses in modernism are the terror of repeating yourself, and terror of repeating something that another artist has already done. For Daft Punk those two impulses became at loggerheads: they didn’t want to repeat what they had done before (because in a context where their influence is legion, they would no longer stand out), so they were impelled to repeat and to remake styles of music that  were superseded over thirty years ago.

Geeta Dayal described Daft Punk’s approach as sampling taken to the next level: they reconstructed the sort of teams of skilled musicians and sound engineers that made the kind of music that Daft Punk in the 90s liked to sample  and rework into contemporary dancefloor anthems.  But I think they go even further than that: it’s as though they’re “sampling” the Zeitgeist of the late Seventies and early Eighties. They’re trying to reconstruct the episteme,  the larger cultural matrix that produced albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Tusk, or Off the Wall. Not just the analogue means of production, but  analogue sense of temporality. In particular, the Event, the mass synchronized experience of  “the whole world” tuning into some kind of cultural artifact: movies like Stars Wars and Saturday Night Fever,  records like Sgt Pepper’s  and Thriller.   Hence the much-discussed promotional campaign with its teasing hints and initial reliance on analogue-era techniques like billboards and television ads.  There’s a nostalgia here not just for the monoculture (“pop culture is the monoculture,” Thomas Bangalter insisted, when I interviewed Daft Punk)  but for monotemporality, for a shared experience of time.

This feeling of mass synchrony is inseparable, I believe,  from concepts like progress and the future. That is made clear on Random Access Memories with the two key tracks, “Giorgio By Moroder” and “Contact”.

 “Giorgio By Moroder” involves  a towering figure of 20th Century popular music looking back on his own looking forward.  Producer of Donna Summer amongst many others, and pioneer of the electronic disco style known as Eurodisco, Moroder was interviewed at length by Daft Punk. Two small snippets appear on the track. The key segment concerns the making of “I Feel Love”, an international number one hit in 1977, and notable for being the first  all-electronic dance track.

Moroder speaks of the Donna Summer album on which “I Feel Love” appeared, I Remember Yesterday, a sort of disco concept album about time and memory:

 “I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the 50s, the sound of the 60s, of the 70s –  and then have a sound of the future - – and I thought, ‘wait a second, I know the synthesizer -   why don’t I use a synthesizer, which is the sound of the future?’... –I knew that could be a sound of the future, but I didn’t realise how much the impact would be.”

And the rest, as they say, was  history. The history of future pop. Eighties synthpop and Hi-NRG and house, Nineties techno and trance, these and so many other things can be sourced back to this breakthrough, “I Feel Love”.

It’s totally charming that Daft Punk pay tribute to their ancestor-hero with “Giorgio By Moroder”, which may well invent a new genre, autobiographical disco. Interestingly, however, Daft Punk and Moroder  don’t collaborate musically. Instead they use his voice,  the one thing he’s not particularly famous for. And the melancholy implication of the collaboration is that neither Daft Punk nor Moroder felt  capable of making any kind of future music together or separately. What Daft Punk do instead is to make an accurate reproduction of  the synth and drum machine driven Eurodisco sound.

Fredric Jameson  described the modernist art work as a monument to the future . With “Giorgio By Moroder,”  we have a monument to a past future.  Nobody is going to rush out of the front door, like Brian Eno did with David Bowie, and tell their friends, “I have heard the future of pop”.  Rather, listening to “Giorgio By Moroder”, you  might say, wistfully, “Do you remember when music sounded like the future?”.

“Contact” is the finale to Random Access Memories, and it aspires to be a grand one. It starts with a sampled voice from a NASA transmission,  the Apollo 17 mission, from December 1972. It’s Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to stand on the Moon’s surface.  He’s talking about “a bright object, it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing, it’s way out in the distance”. After describing it in some detail, Cernan says “there’s something out there”.

Right there, you have encapsulated all the romance of the space race, the final frontier. There’s that mystical inkling of something being out there that is our destiny as a species to find and make contact with. We must boldly go, it’s our nature, our calling.

What Cernan actually said when he actually climbed the ladder back into the lunar module and bid adieu to the Moon was this: “as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I'd like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow.”

“Contact” itself is a thrilling track, the least dated sounding (it could almost be a Chemical Brothers tune from the rocktronica golden age of 1997).  A wooshing rush of sound is sustained, modulated, and intensified for quite a long stretch of time. But then it sputters out anticlimactically, like the Space  Race did. 

[now this melancholy for the lost dream of Space is itself dated, with new images and sonic impressions of Mars, a burst of activity from multiple nations flexing their strength with probes to other planets in our solar systems etc etc)

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Polska hauntologia

"The eerie storyline of videos revolves around the disappearance of a beautiful young Polish woman named Ania Slowinska and the dark, seemingly supernatural forces behind it. As the tale unfolds it becomes apparent other women have fallen victim to the same forces, with one having had all her teeth removed after being murdered. Among the many suspects and supporting characters in the drama are Ania’s mother Kristina, who seems to be morbidly enjoying the attention her daughter’s disappearance has brought her. Others include Ania’s birth-father – whom she never knew – plus her step-father, an infatuated stalker, a jealous female friend and a faith healer with a very strange band of disciples. Organs and limbs seem to be stolen for transplant use and replaced with porcelain or papier mache substitutes. This practice extends even to the heads of the victims … sometimes while they’re still alive."- Glitternight

Now the perpetrator of Magiczny Świat Ani is surely surely the same Polish mystery man behind Kraina Grzybów / Mushroomland TV aka Poradnik Uśmiechu / Smile Guide, or so I assume. 

Which show I cannot believe I never posted about here, since it's prime proof that hauntology is both a transnational syndrome yet in each of its instances is defined by nationality and place as well as time. The concept in this case being a spooky memoradelic molestation of a Communist-era children's TV show of the 1980s. Somewhere between parody and revenant, Smile Guide defiles whatever the Polish equivalent of Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead might have been. 

"KrainaGrzybowTV (also known as Mushroomland (or Land of Mushrooms) TV, KGTV, or just Kraina Grzybów) is a Polish YouTube channel, which features a series of 1980’s themed videos revolving around a mysterious place called Mushroomland. The videos (so far) include: Smile Guide (Poradnik Uśmiechu) episodes 1, 2, 4, and 5, several Smile Guide OST videos, and one episode of Mushroom Melodies (Grzybowe Melodie). Six definite characters have been thus far established: Agatha (in Polish, Agatka), Maggie the Squirrel (Wiewiórka Małgosia), Caroline (Karolina), the Jeansman (Dżinsowy Człowiek), Hatszepsut,and Agatha’s unnamed mother.

"Smile Guide takes the appearance of an ’80’s or early ’90’s-era Eastern Bloc children’s educational program which, as the specific video progresses, descends into chaotic madness. Much of its style consists of footage made to look like it was shot on VHS, grammatically incomplete sentences, absurd humor, nostalgic-sounding music (mostly played on synthesizer and designed to evoke Polish television soundtracks from the 1980’s ), and, of course, disturbing imagery.

"The show is hosted by Agatha, a young girl always seen wearing a blue sweater with red flowers on it. She also wears paper eyes over her actual eyes (as do Caroline and the Jeansman). The premise of each episode is that Agatha is going to teach the viewer how to do something grammatically nonsensical (“how to effectively apple,” “how to make from paper”), but this pretense generally gets dropped about half-way through as the video descends into chaos. She is usually joined by Maggie, a talking cartoon squirrel, who acts as something of a co-host. The two generally seem to be friendly, although Episode 2 sees both of them snapping angrily at each other at one point, perhaps to imply everything is not as it seems...."

- Knowyourmeme

At Found Objects, a commentator compared Smile Guide to this show

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Héliophoria! (return of the Silver Records)


New joint project from DJ Food and Howlround, under the deliciously sibilant and resonant alias   The Superceded Sounds of… The New Obsolescents... released shortly on the equally sibilant imprint Castles In Space.

What is immediately striking is the silver metallic artwork with which the releases are gorgeously clad... triggering erogenized memory-rushes for those of a "lost future" fetishising disposition. 

For the process involved, known as Héliophore, is the self-same one used for the beyond-iconic covers of the Prospective 21e Siècle series of electronic avant-garde and musique concrète  LPs released by Philips in the late 1960s. 


As Food, a.k.a. Strictly Kev explains, he has been fantasizing about making a record with this kind of cover since stumbling across the Prospective series while touring Europe in the '90s: 

“The patterns etched in the covers are achieved by minute differences in the angles of the foil coating which then reflects the light and appears to animate when moved... Tracking down the company who made the original Philips covers in France led to a dead end as they had long ceased to exist so I gave up hope. Unknown to me a British company had managed to replicate the process under the name Dufex in the UK. Sadly they’d also wound up business in 2019 but via a chance encounter on a separate project I managed to find the final stocks of card from the business at a lighting company. Once The New Obsolescents’ album was in the bag we started to think about artwork and I knew that this collision of tape loops and turntablism was the perfect record to sleeve in foil as a homage to the Philips series.... Procuring 300 sheets in five different designs, I gave them to Jonas Ranson at paperHAUS who carefully but expertly screen printed each panel with the cover design. Each sheet was then cut to a 12”x12” size and painstakingly glued to each sleeve, pressed while drying and sleeved in PVC outers, making sure not to scratch the foil which is extremely delicate. As a nod to the site of the original performance recordings at the Museum of London, with moon rock bean bags and a space travel theme, we decided on a silver and black hybrid moon surface effect for the vinyl. The whole process of making the sleeves probably took longer than the whole album but I couldn’t be happier with the results, it was worth it.”

There are five variants of the foil board sleeves known respectively as “Spiral’, “Starburst’, “Cross’, “Swirls’ and “Hyperspace”

For a text for the exhibition Futur Anterieur, I wrote about the Prospective 21e Siecle covers and how the look inspired similar covers for the French science fiction publisher Ailleurs et Demain (which translates as Elsewhere and Tomorrow)

"In 1969, the publisher Robert Laffont launched the literary equivalent of Prospective 21e Siècle: the imprint Ailleurs et Demain, dedicated to science fiction and under the direction of Gérard Klein. Over the coming years Ailleurs et Demain would publish translations of works by giants of the genre such as Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, Frank Herbert, and Arthur C. Clarke along with novels by French s.f. writers like Jacques Sternberg, Michel Jeury, and Klein himself.  Klein was an admirer of the Prospective series and decided to package A & D fiction using the same process, called Héliophore and originally developed in the 1930s by Louis Defay to transform aluminum paper for printing.  Some of the Ailleurs Et Demain designs closely resemble specific Prospective 21e Siecle sleeves, while others are new but clearly inspired by the series. (With both the albums and the novels, nobody seems to know the identity of the designers, who were in-house and uncredited).  The design style, which eventually extended beyond silver to gold and copper book covers, was maintained for over 20 years, before being abandoned.

More on the Héliophore process at Grapheine




The Superceded Sounds of... release rationale: 

This album began life four years ago when the trio of Strictly Kev, Robin The Fog and Chris Weaver were tasked by Jonny Trunk with providing an all-night immersive soundtrack for the mammoth ‘Museum Of Last Parties’ extravaganza in the Museum of London’s Torch Room. Setting up their vintage reel to reel tape machines, turntables and various FX units in the very shadow of the torch that became the icon of the 2012 Olympics, the trio set about creating a soundtrack worthy of champions.Strange new worlds conjured from obsolete media, a vision of the future constructed live using nothing but vintage analogue technology and a sense of adventure.With a constant stream of revellers stopping by to lounge on moon-shaped cushions and enjoy this interstellar soundtrack being woven right before their ears, the trio amassed almost four hours of improvised oddities that night. It wasn’t until the spring of 2020 when they suddenly each found themselves at home with all plans cancelled and a LOT of spare time that the tapes were resurrected and the album started to take shape.

(Hat tip Bruce Levenstein and Andrew Parker)


While checking out the release, I also had a butchers at the recent discography of Castles In Space - mostly clocking the visuals, not so much the audio. I was struck by how they are sticking with the hauntology (the uncanny persistence of H being a recurrent thought-wrinkle here).  This was the most striking son-of-Ghost-Box release.

Listen here

Release rationale: 

“Interim Report, March 1997” by Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan is Gordon Chapman Fox’s hymn and homage to the brutalist beauty of Cheshire’s designated new towns of Warrington and Runcorn.

Chapman-Fox grew up in Lancashire, and having been a frequent user of the famous Preston Bus Station in his youth, he was struck by the enormous chasm between the sixties architects utopian vision for what new towns should be and the sticky-floored, piss-streaked reality. He explains: “The more I looked into it, the appeal of these visionary architects grew. It felt like perhaps the most visionary building projects of all post war Britain were some of the estates built in Warrington and Runcorn new towns, these twin towns on either side of the Mersey. The estates of Runcorn were space-age futurist with external plumbing, rounded windows and raised walkways. But as housing, they were a failure. Runcorn was the last great UK modernist, futurist building project built with a community in mind. “Interim Report, March 1979” looks at this interim, this gap between vision and reality.”

At the time of recording the album, he says, “It seemed like there were a lot of ersatz-soundtracks to lost John Carpenter films, or obscure giallo “classics”. I preferred to find inspiration from the surreality of the mundane, hence the creation of Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan. 1979 seemed the perfect point to be located in time, sitting on the razor’s edge between the post-war consensus and the dawn of Thatcherism. As the concept took hold, I tried to format the music according to the capabilities of a small, provincial recording studio in 1979. I limited the number of instruments available, the number of tracks available and so on. This really helped to shape the album and anchor the concept. As a teenager, I was into rock and looking for ever more extreme sounds - AC/DC gave way to Metallica gave way to Carcass. But by the 90s I heard Warp artists and that was me hooked. What they were doing could be far more brutal than anything by four sweaty long-haired guys with guitars. But it could also be funky, beautiful, ethereal, melodic and so much more.”

It’s that ethereality and true sense of time and place that Chapman-Fox has captured so well here. “1979 marked a change in the political and wider culture of British society. The Warrington- Runcorn development marks the swan song of post-war urban planning in the UK – soon the ethos of building better communities would be replaced by Thatcherite “no such thing as society” and “Greed is good” mentality. And look where that got us…“ 

Well, you can't much more hauntological than that can you? Cut-off point 1979, end of post-war consensus...  and the sonic palette is very Pye Audio Corner. 

The "H for life" vibe is discernible in some of the other Castle In Spaces releases's artwork too: 


bonus Héliophoria!