Contemporary pop music is increasingly dependent upon a series of conceptual frames to produce its intended effect. It’s no longer enough to simply listen to a record; the contemporary listener is obliged to examine press materials, interviews, blogs, Twitter feeds, live performances, and associated visual materials in order to construct a new set of aesthetic values around which the listening experience can be organized. These conceptual strategies have been key to gallery art for more than three decades now (the rise of the “artist’s statement”), but their gradual incursion into the relatively naïve realm of pop has been something of a shock to the system. Simon Reynolds was among the first to adopt a cautiously optimistic stance on conceptual pop, celebrating its advanced practitioners (e.g., Daniel Lopatin, James Ferraro, etc.) while maintaining an essential ambivalence about what it might mean for the future of pop music and pop music criticism. Recent thinkpieces by various critics have mostly dispensed with Reynolds’ ambivalence, embracing conceptualism, but a certain irreducible ambiguity stubbornly remains. Does the embedded meta-text, self-critique, and ironic distance of conceptualism threaten to transmute the immediacy and vibrancy of pop music into a lifeless, inert museum piece?
Unlike the “concept album” of 1970s prog rock, today’s pop conceptualists are mostly uninterested in spinning elaborate mythological narratives or idiosyncratic science-fiction allegories. They don’t construct imaginary lyrical languages or create double albums based on the mystical apologetics of Paramahansa Yogananda. Increasingly, the “concept” is not narrative, but pastiche: a deliberately affected embrace of generic tropes, a surrealistic assemblage of disconnected cultural references from the recent past. Rather than creating an original narrative that resonates on an archetypal level, pop conceptualists utilize found objects — samples, vintage synthesizer presets, appropriations — to create uncanny musical simulacra capable of affecting a transvaluation of the banal or ridiculous. New age music, elevator muzak, video game soundtracks, royalty-free MIDI, ringtones, and Top 40 pop-trance have all been subject to this conceptual reframing in recent years. It is a precarious strategy, one that is likely to provoke a profound sense of alienation in a listener who is unaware or uninterested in the conceptual framing of the project. For every successful application of this gambit — think of James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual or Fatima Al Qadiri’s Genre Specific Xperience — there is a vast landscape of poorly executed style parodies that fail to resonate in any meaningful way.
Unfortunately, the debut album by Gatekeeper falls into the latter category. Part of a multimedia spectacle that encompasses music, visual art, a proprietary font, and a first-person gaming environment, Exo arrives on the scene complete with its own predetermined critical response. The press release by Hippos In Tanks tells us exactly how we should feel about the project: “Demented and celebratory, sinister but pure-hearted, Exo is a cerebral spectacle, a gapless playback rush of digitally-enhanced stimulation.” The press release breathlessly registers the art credentials of the duo, noting Aaron David Ross’ affiliation with conceptual boy band HDBoyz and Matthew Arkell’s day job as a gallerist and curator in NYC. Much of the press notes are given over to the work of digital artist Tabor Robak, responsible for the cover art, downloadable font, and playable gaming environment so key to the audiovisual presentation of the album. Name-checking a laundry list of contemporary art buzzwords — HD, immersive, digital, interactive, simulation, etc. — the press release attempts to situate the album in an increasingly crowded milieu of underground pop with a high-art pedigree.
In an apparent attempt to stake out their own virgin musical territory, the duo has all but abandoned the John Carpenter-esque pop-horror atmospheres of their breakthrough Giza EP. Although their debut showed enormous promise and earned a great deal of critical praise, it was saddled by its connection to an already overpopulated field of vintage synthesizer soundtrack revivalists (Zombi, Com Truise, et al.). As a high-concept gamble, it would seem, the duo has embraced a new sound that the press release describes as “a tight blend of IDM, acid and big-beat inspired techno rhythms.” What the press release fails to mention is that this sound already exists and has been going strong for nearly two decades in the relatively isolated world of club music. Generally referred to as EBM (electronic body music; or, more narrowly, “aggrotech”), it has been the persistent soundtrack to industrial club nights since the early 1990s. Groups like Haujobb, Synapscape, and Iszoloscope are enormously popular among EBM initiates, but there is at least one good reason this particular quadrant of the industrial dance universe has so far failed to cross over into critical respectability: it is terrible. Aggrotech strives to be the musical analog of cyberpunk — evoking fantasies of control and resistance within an all-encompassing digital dystopia — but more often it sounds like stale techno pushed into the red, highly dependent upon a discrete set of instantly familiar synth patches that bear an unfortunate resemblance to the building blocks of progressive trance.
There is no doubt Gatekeeper are aware of this genre, as they have an impressive command of its structures and tropes, as evidenced by their pitch-perfect emulations of the style on tracks such as “Exolift” and “Encarta.” The question, then, is why they have chosen to revive this reviled subgenre of dance music, and why now? Part of the answer seems to lie in the conceptual trappings of the album. The press release (and much recent critical work) posits HD as the binaristic “other” of lo-fi: digital rather than analog, professional rather than amateur, startling clarity rather than muddy ambiguity. Not coincidentally, this obsession with HD aesthetics dovetails neatly with contemporaneous movements in gallery art, especially video and internet-based art. However, the preoccupation with HD paradoxically underlines the essential shortcomings of digital technology. 1080p resolution and variable-bitrate algorithms promise greater and greater fidelity — a hyperreal presence, a new relationship to technology — but this is little more than a sophisticated illusion. All digital formats involve compression and data loss. Magnetic tape and celluloid film may be low-tech in comparison to Blu-ray discs and digital motion interpolation, but they offer resolution and fidelity that is exponentially greater than the best digital format currently in existence. By positing a somewhat impoverished riff on EBM as the musical counterpart to the (g)lossy realm of HD, Gatekeeper seem to be creating a satire of sorts; an immersive audiovisual environment that appears vivid and high-budget at first glance, but gradually reveals itself to be cheap, substandard, an unconvincing simulacra. The uncanny valley yawns toward us once again.
Or is it satire at all? Another theme — biodigital proliferation and evolution — runs through the album and its associated artworks, a Schismatrix-esque set of futurist motifs centering on the hybridization of the organic and the synthetic: digital topographies, virtual ecosystems, the Deleuzian/DeLandian notion of technological evolution. Perhaps there is an important clue missing, but it’s difficult to reconcile this comparatively lofty set of concepts with the persistently cheesy, hyperactively generic qualities of the music itself. In the final analysis, the connection between these two sets of aesthetic ideas seems underthought, and we are left with an aggressively bland suite of songs that aren’t especially enjoyable to listen to, even when articulated together with Robak’s gaming environment. Anyone who has fiddled with Cinema 4D and other landscape-rendering applications can confirm that much of the Exo gaming environment depends upon prefabricated software assets. This prefabrication contributes to the “found object” aspect of the album, but it also raises more questions. Like much about Exo, the digital readymades provoke an interesting set of concepts and questions, which is good, but results in an album in which a majority of the heavy lifting is performed by the extra-textual aspects of the project, providing undeserved depth to a series of obsessive repetitions of the banal. In other words, Gatekeeper are telling rather than showing. It is quite possible that this criticism in itself is a relic of the past. Exo very well might be the future of cutting-edge pop. And if that turns out to be the case, is it not reasonable to demand from this kind of music a more rigorous justification for its own existence?