Universal in concept yet lofty in execution, Race To Zero is a multifaceted, thought-provoking and self-aware record. Attempting to fuse the acoustic and digital worlds, and inspired by humankind’s relationship with technology, there is nothing novel about the pillars that hold it aloft – but the resulting structure is a superb example of detailed musical engineering.
The starting point for UK-based John Matthias and Jay Auborn, who share all manner of production, compositional and instrumental chops, was the notion that the consumer tech that now dominates our daily experiences and interactions is harming our ability to appreciate them. We remove ourselves from the social with every glance to screens personal; our sense of location is compromised with this ingress to destinations virtual. Implicit here is a now oft-repeated paradox: these enablers of communication are harming our ability to communicate. As a potential remedy, the composers ensconced themselves in faraway, acoustically rich hideouts, which forced their improvised performances to be focused only on that time and place.
Given that, and our modern compositional categorising, you might be forgiven for expecting a record of low-key, piano-based ambience. Truthfully, this album doesn’t comfortably fit in any of our genres. Piano and violin may dominate, but the significance and fusing quality of the album’s electronic elements cannot be downplayed. Opener “Actress” typifies this. A cleansing synth drone and sedate, pulsing kick provide the digital; the piano chords and bowed violin ostinato provide the acoustic. Additional layers of pizzicato violin and snare rim clicks create seamless joins between them – acoustic instruments played in loops; the organic mimicking the digital.
This is a theme that persists throughout most tracks. “Pretoria” leaps off the seat it had been dozing on halfway through, an ever-ascending violin line enhancing a frantic tempo introduced by polyrhythmic beats and claps. “Every Word A Mask” is more blunt, its propulsive beat marching a single-chord piano rhythm toward a multi-layered conclusion. The delightful “Soma Vapour” is a cheerier excursion with a leaf-crunching beat that best reveals the hint of Radiohead in Matthias’s DNA (he played violin on The Bends).
There is a successful template to many of the tracks, but Matthias and Auborn aren’t afraid to deviate from it. The mid-set one-two of “Wax Heart” and “Stone Face” may last a mere four-and-a-half minutes, but the Jaga Jazzist-esque brass and looping synth lines and abrupt changes of style and pace render this passage the record’s peak. There are moments of solemnity and sparseness in “Caretaker” and “Songbird”, respectively, where loops of simple piano phrases drift above discretely growling electronics and string ambience. These tracks may evoke the soundscapes of Trent Reznor a little too much, but come as welcome changes of pace given the record’s excellent sequencing.
The tracks may have embodied purity and a sense of place at birth, but like many things were corrupted as they aged, forced in the production process through a hundred other locations – virtual “rooms” of reverb and other digital processes. The composers confess to pushing their computer beyond its limits, thereby unveiling sonic artifacts that would otherwise have remained buried (the swarm-like electronics in the middle third of “Tilted Stage” seem a good example of this). In doing so, they purposefully fractured the recordings’ sense of place.
There’s an obvious parallel here to when we message people on our phones or scroll through Twitter. By entering our own virtual rooms, we infringe on our ability to communicate in our reality. By mimicking – almost mocking – the paradox inherent in this era of digital communication, Race To Zero not only acknowledges the problem of human dislocation, but seems to have made its peace with it – even embraced it. It is a bold and infectious release well worth your attention. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)