Confronting an act like Illusion of Safety, whose long history, deep catalog, and membership permutations are nearly uncountable, can be problematic. Spanning from the mid 1980s to the present with 50+ releases, Dan Burke et al.’s project has had critics bearing an ever increasing weight with each new release. The group’s past sounds — varying, in Dan’s own words, from “power electronics [to] totalitarian pseudo-rock” — inevitably infects perceptions of their new ones, so it’s no surprise that any criticism is largely tempered by their wealth of material.
Busier Than Happier, Illusion of Safety’s newest work, is no exception, invoking direct and obvious links to works prior. A solo venture, Busier Than Happier is populated predominantly by field recordings, each of noticeably low fidelity. Such constructs hark back to Burke’s musique concrète-filled 80s, a time when production quality was a technological constraint, not a self-imposed aesthetic.
While it is doubtful that any of Burke’s samples are familiar to his listeners, he doesn’t even offer an opportunity for recognition. Chatter and haunted room ambience introduce “Preface,” but before any semblance of clarity can be achieved, a storm of white noise clouds the work. It’s similar to the way Burke annihilates the spoken, aged words of “The Spanish Situation” with carnival laughter and a devilish synthesizer: while voices comprise most of Busier Than Happier’s unoriginal sounds — speaking, singing, or laughing — they’re always concealed by his machinations.
It’s as if Burke is avoiding the inevitable recollective nature of field recordings. Even sources unknown to the listener still carry an interpretation beyond the scope of ‘musical’ sound, flooding a piece with foreign priors, irrespective of their authorial intent or accuracy. But Burke’s samples are of deeper perplexity, of dual referential constitution. Within the context of Illusion of Safety’s catalog, the field recordings on Busier Than Happier not only beckon ancillary thoughts of non-musical origin, but also of past works by Illusions. And yet these representations are counter-cyclical: Burke’s reluctance of the former constructs the latter.
I can’t help but find humor in Busier Than Happier’s contradiction. Burke might just be pulling a prank on the self-aware critic, the one who observes and balks at shedding the momentum of critical literature. Undoubtedly, I have fallen prey to this ‘joke,’ if it exists at all. But this manifestation does beget a recognition of the playfulness inflected by Busier Than Happier, an understanding that complements its concrete sounds and only heightens appreciation of this excellent release.