We often use “dark”, “warm”, and similar descriptors to help classify abstract music. Perhaps “utopian” and “dystopian” are equally useful. Some sounds have the power to conjure idyllic visions, showing us how the world might be. John Hassel and Brian Eno’s Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics (1980) never fails to achieve this for me. By contrast, some recordings create bleak and apocalyptic spaces. Dystopian sound can bring catharsis. We might come away newly committed to improving our own world. However, there is a chance we might sink further into misanthropy.
Nick Jeffrey knows how to create an oppressive atmosphere. Based in Berlin, Jeffrey is a visual artist and musician. His exhibition, “Isolation Booth”, is running at the Jakob Kroon gallery until July 22. Visiting it virtually (which we encourage you to do) brings a carefully curated sense of claustrophobia. Stark, elemental textures invite you into their micro-realities. Some burn hot, while others chill to the bone. As the harsh aural accompaniment overwhelms the viewer, external worlds are shut off.
Like the soundtrack to his exhibition, Loss of Being sits under Jeffrey’s moniker, Residual Drifter. The album constructs a dystopic journey. The liner notes evoke a world of silent marshlands, post-industrial ruins, and cavern-dwelling survivors, which the track titles explore. The sounds themselves also impart a narrative. The album opens onto ominous, deep droning and repetitive bursts of Morse code. The second track builds layers of static to jam the signals. On “Border Hiker II”, artificial bells toll – for the dead, or for an armistice? Before we get any answer, they fall back into electric whirrs and wavering tones.
Like the art of “Isolation Booth”, the tracks on this album subsume the audience in elemental substances. “Screen Dawn” starts bright, then plunges into a five-minute hinterland of pulsating shadow. “Memory Window Relapse” muffles our faculties like diving into water. Having built a steady soundscape, Jeffrey often cuts through it with resolutely artificial shards of synth; or he reaches a rolling boil and suddenly cuts out.
“Utopia” and “dystopia” are inherently unstable. One person’s heaven might be another’s hell. Moreover, the two imaginative exercises are intertwined. Utopias always harbour a hidden darkness. The bleakest dystopia emits some glimmer of light. The music of Residual Drifter occasionally contains an ecstatic palette within its sharp, depressive edges. “Expander” surprisingly opens its undergrowth of ambience onto a clearing of bouncing techno melody. But we are left waiting for the 4/4 beat. Will a regular rhythm ever return to this world?
On the surface, Loss of Being may be dismal and dark. But losing oneself does not rule out a happy ending. The penultimate track reaches a space of safety and tranquillity, rewarding the loss of ego with bright fragments of larger melodies. The album finally concludes, as all stories must. Slow beats set the pace. Melodies rise from noise, then vanish, leaving birdsong and finally silence. We turn our attention back to our own worlds, wondering how we prevent the dystopia from coming to pass. (Samuel Rogers)