As one might guess from the artist’s untranslatable moniker, Simulacrum is a highly unusual album. Aho Ssan (Désiré Niamké) grew up black in a French suburb, and his music is a commentary on discrimination and displacement. It’s not a friendly set; the textures are harsh and abrasive, as one expects from Subtext. Yet a thin blanket of warmth can be detected: not enough to keep one comfortable on a cold winter’s night, but just enough to keep one alive. This warmth may represent the presence of ideals or the comfort of generations.
The first two tracks are awash with texture, beatless industrial with classical undercurrents. One can hear scars of abraded songs beneath the wash, like rights or respect attempting to break through. The four-part title composition portrays internal and external struggle: a sonic attempt at synthesis that mirrors Niamké’s history. The action erupts in “Simulacrum II” and “III” as the previously suggested beats punch through the wall and launch the recording levels into the red. Layer upon layer of seemingly disparate patterns pile atop each other, battling without resolution. From 2:26-3:43 of “II,” the beats retreat, revealing a tumultuous inner world; then violence again, then softness. Continuous conflict is draining, but this dynamic contrast helps the listener to appreciate the distance between peace and turmoil.
A sense of claustrophobia grows across “III” and “IV.” Is there no way through the morass? As it turns out, there is: the sense of continuity that comes from generational connection. Niamké creates a patch-based choir to pay tribute to a grandfather he never knew: a Ghanan trumpet player in the Ivory Coast. The Mensah Imaginary Band dominates the two closing tracks, which discard the hard beats of their predecessors for something more subtle.
The cover is open to interpretation: is the subject holding his head to protect his thoughts or to massage a bruise? Or is this another person’s hand extended in comfort? The disconnect between statements of equality and racial reality seems an ever-widening chasm, enough to give anyone a headache. Some reply with anger, others with disillusionment. Aho Ssan has chosen a different approach: to demonstrate that opposing forces can create tonal harmony, even at high volume.
Is it not too late? Might we yet be reconciled? (Richard Allen)