Consider the meatspace
It all started, as everything does these days, on Facebook. You probably remember getting the notification. A page you follow, The Drones, has changed its name to TFS Records. After a moment’s confusion, it became clear that TFS Records, the label that released the last two Drones albums, had spawned a new band—Tropical Fuck Storm—and that this band comprised two members of the Drones, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, along with Erica Dunn of Harmony and Palm Springs/MOD CON on guitar and keys, and Lauren Hammel of High Tension on drums.
At first, the exact nature of the transformation was hard to discern. With its punning, cynical lyrics and angular guitars, TFS’s first single “Chameleon Paint”, released last year, seemed like it could have been an outtake from the last Drones record. However, the three seven-inches that followed charted the band’s evolution—or mutation—in real time, each one contributing to a vision of a grotesque, hyperstimulated, over-internetted world. A Laughing Death in Meatspace, just released on Mistletone Records, completes that vision: its nine haunted and haunting songs add up to a sweeping Boschian panorama of despair and desolation.
“It sounds like it looks,” Liddiard wrote of the album in a Facebook post premiering its hideous cover art. Featuring a rubbery tableau of monsters—an ugg boot–clad Big Bird, a vomiting zombie pope, a bewigged cane toad, and so on—the cover suggests a nightmarish orgy in Jim Henson’s workshop as much as it does the heat death of our mass-mediated culture. And Liddiard’s right: the new band’s enlarged sonic vocabulary suits his lyrics, saturated as they are with deranged technicolour allusions to everything from the titular Papuan laughing death to placenta-chewing Toorak mums and hot stuffed pizza crusts.
If civilisational collapse is the album’s grand theme, the internet is ultimately the source of the rot. Indeed, the hollowness of digital life is Liddiard’s prevailing obsession. As he said last year, “The internet distorts reality and dehumanises relationships … Facebook and Instagram keep you glued to the screen, melt your brain and turn you into an idiot so they can sell shit to you. That’s the climate in my head; that’s why I write all this doom and gloom.” But the album amounts to more than just a shallow critique of bad social media habits. Our willing submission to the ever-expanding reach of capital is TFS’s real target: “Kneel down by the advertising / Don’t you make a single false move,” sing Kitschin and Dunn on “Chameleon Paint”, which assails the moral vanity of those who consider the dispensation of “sagely abuse” on Twitter to be a meaningful form of ethical action. Meanwhile, the real world, meatspace, increasingly resembles the irradiated hellscape of “Two Afternoons”, where every human achievement has long been “buried in the sand” and the world repopulated by fourth-dimensional horses and “goats with human faces”.
We’re fucked, in other words. But we are the authors of our own destruction. “The Future of History,” an antic, sinewy song, turns the infamous defeat of chess champion Garry Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue into a cautionary tale about greed and artificial intelligence. “If silicone is prone to make your dreams come true / You could probably say the same thing about nightmares too,” Liddiard shouts, gasping for breath. Every song bears the imprint of the digital world, whose anxious rhythms and glitches hum away in the background. It finds expression in the production and instrumentation of the album too, which combines guitars and acoustic drums with howling, otherworldly synths and electronic percussion. Even the more straightforward arrangements, like the vulnerable and beautiful opening anthem “You Let My Tyres Down”—which begins as a tale of outer-suburban poverty and petty crime before expanding to consider social pariahdom in all its forms—are imbued with an unhinged new energy.
“Soft Power”, sounding the most like the album cover looks, offers a snarling eulogy to the good ol’ days of American cultural imperialism and moral supremacy, before the reign of the “oompa loompa with the nukes”. Soft power, of course, refers to the targeted use of nonmilitary means to achieve diplomatic objectives, but the song exposes that doctrine for the interventionist farce it always was. Over Kitschin’s lurching bass line, Liddiard describes the outbreak of a rebellion against American culture. Needless to say, things fall apart, devolving into an all-out war—Tom Cruise has “picked up the option, he’s gonna film the failed coup / Right after he makes Top Gun 2”—whose casualties are buried in “glory hole–shaped graves.” For all its lurid spectacle, “Soft Power” is a dreadful song in the old-fashioned sense of the word: even after countless listens, its capacity to induce a specific nail-gnawing anxiety is never diminished. Even Liddiard’s hallucinatory ravings about “billboard jolly rogers” and “Bee Gees Christs” become properly menacing as the music reaches its obliterative crescendo.
When the song finally breaks apart, there follows a ghostly two-minute coda in which Liddiard surveys the fallout, offering a Dorothy-like farewell (“Scarecrow, I’m gonna miss you most”) to all that was. Together with “Shellfish Toxin”, an eerie instrumental composition reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti, “Soft Power” is the demented, anguished centrepiece of a record full of demented anguish. Above all, it is the combination of Dunn’s and Kitschin’s voices that lends the album this feeling of terror. Singing as one, theirs is the voice of an alien—or perhaps of a person who’s made contact with one. When, on “Antimatter Animals”, they look on in horror as something awful their way comes, you can almost hear their eyes bulging out of their sockets: “Something’s changed in recent days / Whenever we hang out / There’s these subtle shifts in temperature / That we don’t talk about.” Elsewhere, as on “Rubber Bullies”—a strung-out epic of marginalisation set against the favelas of Rio—their vocals break the tension, offering momentary relief (“Oh! How! Why!”) or sometimes add to it, functioning like a Greek chorus to hem in Liddiard’s exasperated narrators. “Where we going now?” Liddiard asks, defeat in his voice, at the end of that song, the last on the album. You get the sense he doesn’t really want to know the answer.
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