William “Billy Stunt Rock” Flegel cuts an eccentric and enigmatic figure in the world of electronic music. An integral member of the Midwestern breakcore scene of the late 90s/early 00s, he remains well regarded by electronic music aficionados while leaving a remarkably minimal web presence in his wake. Sure, you can download most of his discography from his Bandcamp or read his laugh-out-loud funny commentary on cinema of the 70s and 80s on The Betamax Rundown (think twice before not clicking that last link; it’s amazing). Yet, after hours of searching, the only interview I could turn up for him was this one from 2008, and his highest-profile reviews (in digital form, at least) consist of a rather perplexing blurb from Entertainment Weekly and some muted praise from Pitchfork for 2005’s This is Stunt Rock Volume Three.
Adding to the mystique is the standoffish persona Flegel has cultivated over the years. He is openly contemptuous of his fans, his contemporaries, and perhaps most of all himself, with even his song titles speaking to a kind of dismissive self-loathing (a brief survey includes such gems as “That Last Song Blew,” “Really Harsh Noisy Breaks Don’t Cover Up for Lack of Talent, or Do They?” and “I’ve Really Lost It Because This Shit Is Starting to Sound Like A Washed-up, Half-assed, Fatboy Slim Ripoff with a Twelve Year Old’s Sense of Humor”). The extent to which these attitudes can be taken at face value is difficult to determine.
With that in mind, the Regret Instruction Manual series can be seen as his most emblematic work, despite the fact that it was originally intended as a separate project from Stunt Rock and felt far removed from the cacophonous bangers he was churning out under that moniker at the turn of the century. Conceived of as a zine, Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1 came packaged with a 30-page booklet full of minimalist cartoons, personality tests, sardonic motivational slogans, and bitter letters to ex-lovers. A piece entitled “Motivational Springboard” ends with the mantra, “I will be motivated all day long, and whatever I do I will prosper at.” In a cartoon featuring two wheelchairs a few pages later, the first wheelchair asks, “What do you want for your birthday?” The second one replies “The courage to get out of bed.” The juxtaposition of glassy-eyed optimism with concentrated snapshots of despair creates an atmosphere that’s at once blackly humorous and crushingly earnest.
That tone of nihilistic submission with a playful wink carries over fully into the music as well. Flegel loads the album with dialogue samples from films both obscure and well-known, including such feel-good fodder as Fight Club, Buffalo 66, Death of a Salesman, Magnolia, Requiem for a Dream, and loads of vintage Jack Nicolson. These snippets of violent breakdowns, tearful confessions, and bleak introspection play over rough-hewn beats that swing between melancholy and whimsy.
Regret Issue 1 lacks a certain polish, and Flegel admits to reusing the same drum samples for over half of the tracks. Yet, this rough and limited pallet yields so many thrilling moments. The introduction of a drum loop transforms a wistful piano sample into something jaunty on “Wow, a New Release from My Favorite IDM Producer, Has It Been Two Weeks?” The chopped up dialogue excerpt from Dustin Hoffman’s explosive exchange with John Malkovich in Death of a Salesman creates a wrenching groove on “Someone to Lay in Bed with and Watch Shitty Beta Movies.” Then, of course, there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I’m Sorry I Couldn’t be the Person You Needed, I Mean It,” which lays Jason Robards’ meditation on regret from Magnolia over a jazzy backdrop reminiscent of a stripped-down Avalanches.
But perhaps the most unexpected quality of Regret Instruction Manual Issue 1 is how powerfully cathartic it is. Flegel allegedly began the project after moving back in with his parents and enrolling in community college. The album was, in part, an attempt to create “emotive computer music” — a task that he himself referred to as “impossible” — and process some of the bad feelings he was going through. Whether he acknowledges it or not, Regret was astonishingly successful at that. The film excerpts that occupy such a central place in the compositions force the listener up against focused bursts of rage, sorrow, frustration, and loneliness, a buffet of human misery so intense that even the most bathetic and melodramatic expressions manage to hit a vital nerve center. Listening to the album beginning to end leaves me feeling wrung out, starved for air, exhausted by the weight of suffering and turmoil.
Subsequent volumes of the Regret Instruction Manual would build on the vocabulary Flegel established for the first. Issue 2 contains some truly extraordinary compositions (Flegel beat Kanye to The Arc Choir’s “Walk with Me” by about a year and arguably used it to better effect), and Issue 3 moves into longer-form post-rock territory more closely aligned with Stunt Rock’s later output. Still, there’s a rawness and brutality to the first instillation that has secured it a place in the most masochistic recesses of my heart. Feel-bad music is very seldom this much fun.