Last year, Elysia Crampton spoke of building a utopia in the club: to devote that communal, sometimes transcendent space toward an even greater purpose, to make it “scholastic,” a place where people can “think big and talk big.” But now, a year later, what she has built on Demon City sounds like hell. It’s the nightmare landscape that functions, perhaps, as precursor to her utopian vision — the fire we might walk through before we can have our utopia.
Demon City is the second proper full-length from Crampton, the electronic producer who has hailed in the past few years from L.A., the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and La Paz. But her work in the experimental realm dates back at least to 2008, the most fascinating of which focused on the recontextualization of macho art and spectacle. Her remix of Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me” is at once harrowing and sensual, woven with an elemental dissonance, weaseling its way into Bieber’s six pack, flowering between his ribs. Another piece, “Fire Gut,” is a sparkling, plastic resetting of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which Crampton dubbed over video of monster trucks flipping and crashing. As trucks careened and burst into flames, her gaze lingered on the sparks that fountained into the air and the confetti that fell softly like prefab snow. The juxtaposition seemed to aim at revealing a duality in the nature of violence: the feminine that lays in wait, the possibility of renewal on the other side of destruction.
Both the Bieber remix and the “Fire Gut” video stand on unstable ground — the seizing middle ground of gender, nationality, and ethnicity that we all in some respects inhabit. Harnessing this seismic violence into an act of “becoming,” as Crampton puts it, feels like one of the core modes of resistance her art undertakes. Crampton illustrated this formulation-via-destabilization in her formal debut, American Drift, and it’s even more sharply explored in Demon City, a deeply collaborative work that features significant contributions by like-minded producers Chino Amobi, Rabit, Why Be, and Lexxi. Her current style, more compositional than her collage-based early works, is laden with discarded and highly-referential synthesizer sounds, intersecting to a degree with the disembodied work of composers like James Ferraro. But Crampton’s work adopts its own distinct language, and Demon City uses that language to relate, in her words, an “epic poem” — a resonant narrative of apocalypse and transformation.
Among the spiritual and political inspirations Crampton cites in the album notes are Bartolina Sisa, the 18th-century leader of an Aymara rebellion against Spain who, after her rebellion was quashed, was publicly tortured, raped, and “humiliated” by Spanish forces; and Veronica Bolina, a transgender woman who was beaten and disfigured by a group of Brazilian prison guards in 2015. Much of Demon City feels like a reflection of these humiliations, illustrated via the common marks of her work: creepy 90s sci-fi ambience, booming radio station IDs, syrupy synthesizers, and cruel cartoon laughter, among other recurring elements. The album’s first four tracks compose a blasted hellscape, where these tools are used for horrifying effect. “Irreducible Horizon” emulates the dungeon level of a video game, dark and pixelated, a slinking synthesizer line navigating its mazes. “After Woman,” dedicated to Sisa, feels like being trapped in a cage match; “FIGHT!” a gruff, disembodied male voice commands. The laughter persists. We seem to be at the mercy of some overseer, a curiosity to be taken in and consumed.
“Dummy Track” and “Demon City” represent the album’s deepest descent into negative space. On “Dummy Track,” devilish Halloween laughter, seemingly sampled from toys and sound effects albums, plays over a grueling polyrhythmic hand drum beat. Crampton ingeniously stretches and transmutes the laughter into a rhythm of its own. The humiliating laughter becomes part of the fabric of the piece, internalized into its rhythm. “Demon City” and the track that follows, “Children of Hell,” are a culmination of all the elements of darkness Crampton has brought down upon us: synthetic saxophones squealing with glee, prison gates clanging shut, a melodic figure trudging down toward the deepest darkness. “E,” says a deep male voice, as if reading the inscription on a tombstone. “The Darkest Hour.”
In 2015, Crampton told TMT: “I stand for an unrepresented history of musicians and writers of color, female authors, queer artists… I stand for these histories coiled at event horizon, on the brink of new universe or total disintegration, braided with nothingness.” The darkest moments of Demon City are perhaps an approximation of this nothingness, the negative land that threatens voices outside the mainstream cultural narrative with the oblivion of erased stories and forgotten names. But Crampton’s odyssey doesn’t end with disintegration. “Esposas” rises from the waste of “Children of Hell,” pure ecstatic ascension, a mess of synths strobing like giddy slot machines and air horns blasting triumphantly. “Esposas” en español means both “handcuffs” and “wives” — we imagine shackles splitting open, women joining together in a bath of oscillating light. The death of “E” enables a communal uplift, a reclaiming of space.
Central to much of what Crampton has written and spoken of in interviews is the theoretical concept of “becoming-with” — the idea that in order to become what we want to become, we must join with others (human and nonhuman alike); that to become more a part of the world, the world must become more a part of us, in both its ugliness and its worthiest aspirations. This is why the collaborations on the album are so important. In fact, the album’s final track, “Red Eyez,” wasn’t composed or performed by Crampton, but by Lexxi, originally released back in January. If most of the album brims with Crampton’s distinctive language, “Red Eyez” is euphoric club music, pure soft energy, lacking any of Crampton’s invading voices and untidy appropriations. Its inclusion at the climax of the album supports the idea that authorship as an act of self-realization is a myth. The actualization that occurs here is in the hands of another, just outside the transitory demon city Crampton herself has created. Demon City presents a private apocalypse, a world collapsing. But it also projects a way forward — utopias constructed transnationally, across gender, ethnicity, and even species, in the aftermath of violence.