Touching From A Distance: Lewis, Myrkur, PC Music & Anonymous Music in 2014
Posted on Friday, 19 September 2014 | No Comments
Looking through what isn't there.
Discussing Neneh Cherry's latest album back in March, I opined that "We do not live in an age of mystery. We have become terminally incapable of accepting anything that is not immediately visible or obvious, that cannot be explained away in an instant." I feel the need to - if not retract that - at least clarify that with regards to some of the more notable underground crazes of the year. To a large portion of the listenership, such ownership over the artist is still an essential to their continued support: the vast majority of modern pop stars are expected to be permanently on tap and accessible, ready to be re-tweeted, re-blogged and essentially re-written into something more closely approximating each fan's own particular idea of the Platonic pop star. Even some of the great refuseniks of old are beginning to relent: Aphex Twin is no longer the secretive mad prankster of press yore but instead a gadget-loving dad in the Syro interviews, Scott Walker is back to something approximating regular release schedules, and even Jandek finally gave an extensive print interview to The Wire. Somewhere between Napster and the NSA, the old barriers came tumbling down - but is what we want what we really need?
To whit: a yuppie from the eighties, a one woman black metal band and a bunch of producers walk into a bar. (The punchline? Critical thought pieces like this one, of course.) This unlikely trio of conspirators have been driving different corners of the internet into a frenzy over 2014, but of all the questions being asked of their work, the one that has always emerged loudest is that of who. Each of these three cases has presented us with something, to differing levels and for different reasons, that throws an obscuring veil over the artist responsible. They are all responsible for some incredibly interesting work, but it's the fan-initiated sleuthing around them that is of real interest here. What is it intrinsic to their work that makes us want to know the artist, how does this change how we perceive it, and does that in fact diminish the art?
First of then, Lewis - or Lewis Balour, or Randy Duke, depending when you catch him. When reissue label Light in the Attic put out L'Amour, the first Lewis album to come to public attention, it was another intriguing obscurity in line with the rest of their catalogue. Something about this record though, something in the strange tension between wine-bar sophistication and palpable desperation in the aesthetic of the record, the ambient languor of the music, the barely audible whispered vocals, clearly grabbed people's attention. The rights to another, even more obscure Lewis album, Romantic Times, were snapped up by the label, and as attention snowballed a small studio in America popped up to claim a previously unknown album, Randy Duke's Love Ain't No Mystery, as the work of this mysterious artist. The owners of Light in the Attic eventually tracked down the artist responsible - perhaps, as much as anything, to quell the rumours that this was some kind of record label hoax - and published a picture of a man clearly recognisable as the man from the cover of L'Amour looking at a copy of the newly issued CD. (Going by his all-white dress code, he's certainly kept his look consistent over the years.) We still don't know enough about him or his past to confirm or deny the many rumours as to how and why he made these records, how he funded a seemingly lavish lifestyle - check out that private jet - and how he's spent the years since. Frankly, this is for the best: one of the real delights of these records is in their uncanny valley weirdness, in how they sound perfectly in keeping with the more gaudy end of 80's production on a surface level yet boast such strange, ghostly songwriting and such a haunted pall. This really is one of those cases where the inexplicable nature of the work should not be probed too deeply, lest the explanation prove disappointing.
A different motive however hangs over the recent debut of Myrkur. Lewis ended up obscure, and when the world came knocking just decided to keep it that way: Myrkur however is coming to the world in a self-evidently false guise. The mere concept of a one-woman black metal band - especially one that's produced a debut EP like hers, placing a premium on early Ulver atmospherics and choral vocals to great effect - is frankly intriguing enough. Yet her label Relapse Records, one of the major players in extreme/underground metal, has put together a scant cover story claiming that Myrkur comes from Denmark and plays "with a distinct sense of Nordic isolation", as well as funding a glossy promo video that only raises more questions about what exactly they're selling us. A little digging reveals plenty of online rumours concerning who might be behind Myrkur - I've decided against naming the likely culprit here as the Myrkur artist has made a clear decision to stay into the shadows for the moment, and this is music that deserves to be judged on its own values (even if the artist behind it has eventually been compelled to come forward). If anything, it's made more impressive in that someone from outside the scene has come in with such a fully-formed take on the genre. But if they wanted to keep attention where it should be, Relapse have dropped a clanger: there is no way any metal musician gets a deal with Relapse without demos in the public domain, previous releases, tours under the belt, and there is no way any other new black metal band would get this kind of lavish introduction. It's not that anonymity is a new thing in black metal - pseudonyms, one-man recordings and obscurity are pretty much inherent here - but there's never this much being spent to maintain it. It's little wonder then that parts of the metal community have been dubious about the whole thing. Black metal is hardly so flush with money that anyone would invest the time and energy into making a faux-BM band, but in trying to deflect any criticisms of 'but she's not one of us' or, indeed, 'but it's a woman' from the more sad, knuckle-dragging elements of the scene, this patently false back story and PR campaign gives fans a real reason to be dubious. It's a fairly remarkable own goal as well in one of the sub-genres where fictionalised back-stories and pseudonyms are practically encouraged, yet the strange way the whole Myrkur campaign has unrolled has left many suspicious of the end product. Which, again, is a shame when the music is this good - and when it's someone puncturing a boy's own club into the equation as well.
Then, of course, there's the internet shitstorm to end all internt shitstorms. Almost every website out there has done their own 'is it good/is it shit and what does it mean' bit of hangwringing about the PC Music collective - a sign perhaps of just how much an increasingly dour dance circuit needed an injection of PC Music's giddy, sugary maximalism. The snapback-wearing bros have been particularly incensed by the imagery of the group, with the producers remaining largely out of sight: at their recent Boiler Room show, a model appeared instead of the producer for Sophie's set, a stand-in for a seemingly pre-recorded set, a more representation of the Sophie 'brand' far better than the actual producer. Where much of the dance world has become another men-only environment, they're trying to challenge masculine dominance on an aural and aesthetic level - rather crucially, their female characters are never sexualised or used as 'eye candy.' Their latest character, QT, is written as a scientist and business woman who reached out to the PC Music producers in search of a jingle to promote her new invention, and ended up adding the hyperactive vocal to Hey QT as a result. This is perhaps an imperfect way of proceeding - it can be argued that, despite the intent, they still end up using women as props. It's a counter-argument that has a certain weight to it and it's worth keeping it mind, but the pure intentions of PC Music prevent me from agreeing: instead of guys in hoodies making music just for other guys in hoodies, PC Music want to reach beyond the established hegemony. Their hyperactive music and corresponding image has rattled plenty, but for this writer it's the most exciting thing to have happened to dance music in years. Anonymity right now is one of PC Music's most powerful aces, allowing them to continue to operate just below radar as an amorphous gang of producers and singers producing work that's at once a celebration and an explosion of pop's classic conveyor belt, creating a whole cast of characters and personas to conjure up their own parallel universe of pop music.
So is there anything to be learnt here about how we receive and consume music in 2014? Obviously (given that I'm writing this), I say yes. When we expect superstars and struggling acts alike to Instagram every movement, tweet every thought, promote every act and announce the announcement of a forthcoming announcement, we receive the anonymous with both delight and suspicion. We welcome something that invites some mystery, yet we seek to crush that very same allure - we need to root out what it is that makes this art different and elusive, categorise it along with like everything else, entomologists of sound dedicated to labelling and cataloguing above all else. You wonder quite how the shadow career of a Jandek would be possible today: his fans were understandable curious as to who was making this music, but they were content with the steady stream of sinsiter, warped blues that emerged. When he finally broke cover for live shows, it was in his own time - now, they'd be a Pitchfork expose within months. Sometimes the not knowing is the sweetest thing of all: not to get too Barthes-ist, but liberating the art from the strict confines of declared authorship can allow us to appreciate it through a whole new prism. Our determination to know everything might be stopping us from appreciating the fascinating works right in front of us. If we can learn to silence ourselves, maybe appreciate a little fantasy, music could just get some of its wonder back.