For Demdike Stare, Wonderland is an infinite loop. It’s a place, not of the boundless novelty and creation assumed to inspire wonder, but of the same materials — the electronic noises, samples, tones, and textures — recycled again and again. Replete with the minute inflections intended to give them an aura of evolution and progression, these regurgitated materials create the magical impression of movement through space, time, and history, when in actual fact space, time and history have ceased to exist in any meaningful sense.
This impression comes out most clearly in how Messrs. Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker actually build the nine tracks of their sixth album. Their primary M.O. essentially involves taking a very short sequence of sound, be it a single-bar bass line or a momentary bird squawk, and piling it with its own repetitions, which, rather than being subjected to “essential” changes of structure, generally witness only subtle manipulations of their inessential properties: volume, EQ, echo, reverb, tempo.
In opener “Curzon,” this amounts to the industrial-esque clicks of the beat, which rise in volume and deviate semi-imperceptibly in frequency, creating an unnervingly shifting floor of percussive sound that prepares the way for an ominous coda involving a cycling, four-chord synth riff. In the 10-minute “Hardnoise,” it amounts to a glitchy, atonal figure that clips its way through numerous rounds of sonic degradation, widening in amplitude and growing in distortion without having the decency to stop harassing the listener. Eventually, it fades into a clubbier passage of radiator drones and narrowly twitching hi-hats, yet these continue to maintain the same tight repetitions and the same fundamental feeling: of being helplessly trapped in a freeze-framed moment of time, which generates the illusion that it isn’t freeze-framed merely by doctoring its own image.
Today, it’s all-too easy to think of things that repeatedly doctor their own image so as to manufacture a false sense of change and forward movement. And while Demdike Stare certainly haven’t made any explicit profession of wanting to express the superficiality of modern history via Wonderland’s atomistic electronica, they have past form when it comes to social and political criticism. Last year, the Manchester duo provided the live score to showings of the 1922 Swedish-Danish documentary on witchcraft, Häxan. In an interview with self-titled, Miles Whittaker explained their attraction to the film by explaining that its witch metaphor is very “relevant to our times” and provides “a really good commentary,” particularly on “the Middle East” and “people being suspicious of other humans.” Of course, the mechanically shapeshifting claustrophobia of Wonderland doesn’t explicitly address suspicion or paranoia in this way, yet sinceHäxan furnishes evidence that they are politically minded, it becomes tempting to regard the album’s deceptively repeating micro-loops as some kind of veiled comment on the current complexion of our age.
Just listen to “FullEdge (eMpTy-40 Mix),” which unfolds via a programmed beat that sounds like a half-second sample replayed indefinitely. Soon enough, a two-note digital squelching is added to mix, with its increasing “squelch” acting as a substitute for any more substantial change to its pitch or key. It’s as if its minor variations in timbre are working to disguise this absence of harmonic development, and as if the piece is underhandedly locked into the same fragmented groove, just as, say, American politics is arguably locked into the same media-disguised to-ing-and-fro-ing between mostly indistinguishable political parties.
And yet, this seemingly negative focus on disguised and doctored repetition isn’t to say that Wonderland isn’t an utterly transfixing record. In fact, taut IDM stompers such as “Sourcer” are positively thrilling, attacking as they do the listener with a barrage of syncopated percussion and pounding bass. There’s something about their compositional enclosed-ness that makes them edgier and more agitative than they would’ve been if Whittaker and Canty had given them more room to unfold and shift, as the duo did in 2013’s more spacious Elemental. Whether it be the metallic thudding of “Airborne Latency” or the concrete-jungle shuffling of “Animal Style,” the circling of the same break-beaten patterns generates the maddening suspicion of being caught on some kind of musical hamster wheel, where “forward motion” is little more than the product of the same moment being reproduced endlessly.
As such, this suspicion is also one of powerlessness, yet it’s the kind of powerless that Wonderland somehow makes pleasurable. The LP straps us into its cramped, jilted rhythms and harsh materiality, keeping us in its grips. And it’s successful in keeping us there precisely because we enjoy its confinement, we enjoy its power over us, and we enjoy the illusion that we aren’t confined and powerless. That’s ultimately what makes it a wonderland.