Time: Future, distant. Location: Earth, anywhere on. Atomized workers under constant biological surveillance. A population medicated into sexless docility. All spiritual aroma sucked into the nostrils of an amphetaminically efficient economy. A violent police force of chrome-dipped C-3POs. White surfaces, brushed aluminum. Maybe you’ve seen THX 1138, George Lucas’ 1971 directorial debut, maybe you haven’t, but the imaginary place in which it unfolds must be at least somewhat familiar, whether you’re a book-reader, a moviegoer, or fast-food kitchen worker. Conveyor, a Brooklyn-based alt-rock quartet that before now has mostly created bubbly, grinning, folky pop, has lurched way out of their comfort zone and into this dystopian landscape with Prime, originally created as a live accompaniment to a screening of Lucas’ aforementioned thriller. This experiment faces the challenge of wading into an archetypal space — the futuristic dystopia — filled with ready-made associations, fears, and convictions that could pigeonhole the album and stifle originality. But pigeonholing is made impossible, as among the several achievements of Prime are ambiguities regarding many of the dimensions listeners typically use to interpret location — interior/exterior, psychic/environmental, industrial/natural — to turn a gimmick into a confusing and affecting act of musical shape-shifting.
On their website, the band insists that Prime is a freestanding album, a sound object distinct from its original performance and the film it subverts. This may have some truth — and having heard the album before seeing the movie, I’ll say that it does indeed work in its recorded form — but this assertion is something like “Don’t think of an elephant.” No matter how Buddhically clear-minded and Lucas-free a listener strives to be, the association with robocratic futurism inescapably tinges the sound of the album. “Theme I” sets an eerie mood (imagine the detuned harp from “A Cherry on Top” shrunk down and played in a claustrophobic boiler room) that apparently denotes the disquieting silence of an industrial quarter at night. This discomfort gives way to the other side of the dystopian coin: a vertiginous awe at visions of beautiful, barely conceivable progress built by expropriated labor, a mounting horn section atop a delicate guitar loop, all petering out with skittering beeps back into the underground. Then the default interpretation is entirely dispensed in an instant, as a belligerent tribal drumbeat urges the opening track to its conclusion. This moment shocks with the revelation that pre-existing expectations may color but can’t guide the experience of listening to Prime; the guiding principle (that is, the film) is somewhere out of sight, directing rather than attracting focus in an inversion of the typical soundtrack/image relationship.
Played as synchronized with the film as I can estimate, the record reveals its double life as both a thing-for-itself and a re-interpretation of visual elements, a purpose that seems to transform the music’s structure and sound. Chirps and squeaks that seemed like elements distributed throughout for sonic effect are revealed as alternate sound effects for the many gadgets of the film, and track changes tend to correspond to scene changes. But the accompaniment transforms the sounds in more fundamental ways. In the music’s most dramatic moments, it seems not to describe a dystopia generally or its social tones at all, but instead the specific, beat-by-beat psychological state of the movie’s titular character. As he discontinues his government-mandated medications, the buzzing expands and takes on an attitude; as he falls in love, sweet and dreamy guitar lines are overcome by an ominous, sawing drone.
The score is therefore an environmental piece only in the loosest sense; it’s meant to fill an inner space, and Conveyor proves adept at creating just the kind of highly wrought instrumentals to express oppression from an intimate perspective. It’s music about the distance between one’s hand and the tool it grasps, the wary anticipation of the minutes between swallowing a pill and feeling its effect, the weight of interpersonal detritus building up just out of sight, one gratification-instant at a time. A love story with an edge of horror or maybe vice versa; surf rock at a beach with sentient metal detectors.
The ever-present threat of their obliteration by robotic oscillations and dislocating, groaning monotones gives the moments of sentimental, sun-washed melody and buttoned-up indie rock (sounds that bordered on [and occasionally spilled into] twee on Conveyor’s past releases) a defiantly down-to-earth romantic quality. But Prime is much more than a simple sonic opposition of “human” and “machine” elements, as ostensibly incompatible sounds not only bleed into each other but occupy the same restless mental space where urges for intimacy and efficiency converge as rock-ribbed resolve. “Theme XIII” brings the album into its endgame, a drone ticking triplets into a clattering wall of guitar and brass before giving way to a swaying cover of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love.” It’s a conclusion that, like the rest of the album, both bolsters and re-imagines its supplemental material with eye-widening and ear-pricking results.