I think NYC, HELL 3:00 AM gave me PTSD. People like to talk about the emotionally disorienting effect of albums by acts like Swans, The Haxan Cloak, and Pharmakon, but outwardly heavy music provokes in the context of a controlled environment into which listeners are invited on the premise of temporary displacement and simulated transcendence, as if putting the needle down on the outermost grooves of To Be Kind is putting your money into a hurricane simulator at a shopping mall. The music of James Ferraro, which is neither outwardly heavy nor outwardly anything in particular, has the bizarre effect that you might experience if, while walking through the aforementioned mall, the average frequency of the background noise and the temperature of the air were slightly lowered, such that the otherwise passionless experience became unfamiliar and ominous. Ferraro’s post-Far Side Virtual output actually seems designed to be played while commuting or traversing a populated area, as it casts a devilish glow on the everyday. For all of us who have been following Ferraro in recent years, the reverb-tinged layers of compressed hi-hats, MacBook microphone crooning, and synthetic strings should come with a trigger warning.
SUKI GIRLZ, like 2012’s Sushi, is deceptively more accessible than Far Side Virtual, NYC, HELL, and mixtapes Cold and inhale C-4 $$$$$. It could be mistaken for a beat tape. Another release from this year that might as well be a beat tape is Actress’ Ghettoville, which coincidentally serves as an apt point of reference with regard to SUKI GIRLZ. Each is long, minimal, rhythmic, and “difficult” in the sense that it abuses a relatively straightforward medium. Each casts sonic light on a devastated landscape. The difference is that, while Ghettoville was powered by symbolic decay and a termination of coherent reality, SUKI GIRLZ draws from the hyperreality (I don’t like using that word, but it fits) and impenetrable clarity of Ferraro’s metropolis.
The only original vocals on this release are NYC, HELL’s text-to-speech interjections, which Ferraro said were inspired by the automated ATM voices that called out to him through the silence while walking home in the middle of the night. Whereas the voices previously spoke without their own logic or motivation (and, in the case of SoundCloud experiment GOD OF LONDON, were occasionally real background noise), they now serve a performative function, as Ferraro steps aside and allows the SUKI GIRL (or @suki_girl_ or user703918785) character to dictate the experience. If NYC, HELL assumed Ferraro’s gaze upon an inhuman city and its bizarre personalities (a wealthy love interest, a beloved male model, a serial HIV transmitter), SUKI GIRLZ attempts to assume the decorporalized, depersonalized gaze of inhumanity.
Given that Sushi was Ferraro’s graduation from making ringtones, his 100% exhibition at MoMA PS1 earlier this year might have seemed nostalgic. Still, 100% wasn’t the ironically perfect world of Far Side Virtual, nor did it share in vaporwave’s twisted celebration of the past. 100% was about malfunction and the failure of symbolic systems after the kind of smoothing over we saw on Far Side Virtual occurs. Again, SUKI GIRLZ isn’t broken, but its all-too-perfect operation is consistent with the atmosphere of a global village gone sour. The music’s decentralization from the James Ferraro name (which he achieves by way of the confusing metadata and the new Soundcloud and Instagram accounts) makes the kind of over-explaining of Far Side Virtual that Ferraro was criticized for seem impossible: here, the artist is no longer sufficiently present to explain. Moreover, SUKI GIRLZ is just as technically masterful and conceptually subtle as NYC, HELL, if not more complete and focused. The last few years of Ferraro’s career can be seen as an exploration of minor variations on a theme, and it’s inevitable that SUKI GIRLZ will be viewed as a precursor to something else, but something about this tape threatens to haunt interminably. It terrifies without overture, provocation, or pastiche.