patpong records PPR042DL, 2011, DD album, 34m 44s
This wetpussyallstars side project release is an experimental album, one which reinvigorates the musically abstract with a sense of the narrative and the representational, simultaneously blurring the distinction between electronic artist and electrician. Sounds that are abstract in a musical sense may at the same time, as here, be sonically concrete, and although it is unclear how these sounds are generated, they give every impression of deriving from the device whose interactions they purport to represent. British readers will be more familiar with the tradename of the venerable Insect-O-Cute, but the machine itself will be familiar to habitués of butcher’s shops and fishmongers worldwide: the principal actor, the literal nemesis in this wordless, tragic opera, is one of those contrivances that attracts insects through the use of ultraviolet light, and having seduced them to settle on one of its metal surfaces, reduces them to a trembling mass of chitin, smoke and steam through electrocution. Convenient for us, but from the insect’s point of view, pretty fucking harsh. In Pest-O-Flash, TYLS tells the story of one of this monstrous contraption’s victims.
There is a sonic kinship between villain and protagonist in this drama, one which is exploited with pathos: the 50 Hz hum of alternating current is a deep and throaty roar in comparison, but it is decidedly the same species of sound as the beating of a mosquito’s wings. Is any given sound intended to be representative of the Pest-O-Flash or the hapless arthropod? We can never be sure: instead, their audible traces are unified in a chorus of buzzes, hums, clicks and rattles, in which the individual actors are represented through the action that brings them so brutally together. Their specific characters are largely subsumed, even the mosquito finding its apotheosis in the deception and savagery of its demise. Although we are clearly intended to sympathise or identify with the hero’s seduction by, and crucifixion upon, the technical paraphernalia of retail, there is a sense in which this album celebrates the often damaging interaction between the natural and the technological, among whose acoustic consequences is, of course, all the music that has been made since two sticks were first banged together.
In ‘Seductress’ the artistic materials are introduced, pure electrical hums layered in a fugal accumulation of intersecting periodicities, with a sense of slow motion, and a natural ambience, like the sounds of wildlife in a jungle. ‘Anopheles’ represents the manic energy of a mosquito, but also presages the murderous energy of the Pest-O-Flash, whose ultimate purpose can never be far from the listener’s mind; but again, the sonic distinction between protagonist and nemesis is ambiguous throughout, and there is a sense that ‘Anopheles’ is a sped up version of ‘Seductress’.
In ‘Contact’ coherence and continuity are banished, and we hear the mosquito, pinioned and animated by the energy that is killing it, flailing pointlessly in its desperation to escape; the sound of struggle mutates into the sound of destruction, with deeper, more potent frequencies, like burning, or the rushing of blood. Hereafter, throughout the remaining tracks, the narrative seems to concern the subjectivity of struggle, death and dissolution.
The coda, ‘Farewell’, has an elegiac quality, as the electrical hums become coherently tonal, and then, surprisingly, an accordion, from which an actual melody emerges, against a background of found sound; a world shaped by technology continues its activities, as affected by the absence of our protagonist as by the death of any other insect. So what are we to make of this expression of sympathy and regret for the passing of such an unloved, unnoticed creature?
Clearly this is a humorous conceit, but the music in detail has little potential to evoke humour, or to refer directly to any other human emotion, until the unexpected sentiment of the final track. Should you choose to be provoked into thought, the ideas explored here are as fertile as many that I’ve heard expounded musically at greater length, and with far greater pretension: the valorization of the insignificant, the tragic grandeur of the ordinary, the alienating, destructive power of technology, the age old dialectic between nature and nurture, and the fertile soil to be found in the crack between the two. Pest-O-Flash invites us to consider all these things, and it invites us to find rewarding points of departure in unexpected places, as TYLS has in the Pest-O-Flash itself; ultimately, the high concept that informs this album is a pretext for its author to explore a particular sort of sound, in a structured way, and it’s easy to hear how much fun he had doing it.