Human progress is out. Techno-fetishistic consumerism is in. This, at least, is the crux of Pop. 1280’s third album, Paradise, which doesn’t so much as celebrate the possibility of utopia as despair at its increasing implausibility. It witnesses the Brooklyn quartet as they advance their self-styled “cyberpunk” into a fully dystopian expression of postmodernity, of a world in which grand narratives and great expectations are as laughably quaint as the Easter bunny. Over its nine plunges into serrated industrial rock and synthetic ambient music, it rails against how we’ve swapped noble ideals of political progress and universal human rights for the chance to participate in a senseless, faddish race for the latest gadgetry and technology. Worse still, its indignant combination of juddering synths and corrosive guitars reveal that this race is playing into the very hands of the people who would exploit us for their own ends.
Such puppet masters are never explicitly present in Paradise, but they’re always there in the background, lurking behind the unwavering atmosphere of fear, claustrophobia, and hopelessness propagated by the album. In paranoiac opener “Pyramids on Mars,” the sense of their remote presence is contained in every burst of radiator static that cleaves through the desolate, echoing beats and dilapidated sci-fi moodscapes, evoking a powerful impression of the cowed, impassive globe they’ve created. As singer Chris Bug makes clear through waspish vocals, this is a globe in which the defeat of modernity is hidden behind a digital wall of distraction, in which we’ve “been asleep for days” and “walk upon an abandoned path.”
It’s from here that Paradise traces out the implications of such a stark predicament, doing so via a neon-wasteland palette that’s noticeably heavier on the electronics and synthesizers than Pop. 1280’s previous outing, Imps of Perversion. This descent into industrial retro-futurism provides a fitting artistic and aesthetic parallel to the corresponding descent society has made into technology worship, into a disempowering worship of things at the expense of an appreciation of the social, political, and economic realities in which these things are situated. The pitfalls of such a totemic, fetishistic religion are depicted in “Phantom Freighter,” where a four-bar keyboard riff and transhuman guitar drives Bug to admit, “I went and did it again/ Made myself sick on planned obsolescence.” Similarly, in the crushing “Silico,” the band reaches fearsome heights of abrasion soon after he whelps, “Zeroes and ones/ What’s left to lose?/ Everybody’s dead/ Running dead in the groove.” In both cases, the band’s insistent yet chaotic attack powers a judgement that our adoration of the latest technology is numbing us to the unsanitary effects such technology is having on our lives.
One of its most troubling ramifications is broached in the cavernous and pounding “Chromidia.” Over an inexorable drum machine and mammoth electro-bass, Bug spends the latter half of the song asking, “Are you my watchdog?/ Are you in the high-rise?/ Are you my best friend?/ Are you the camera lens?” These lines furnish an overt reference to how our rush toward the internet seems to have mainly facilitated unprecedented gains in mass surveillance and control, and judging by the ironized tone of voice that delivers them, Bug doesn’t really believe that the person on the other side of the camera lens is his best friend. Neither does he really believe that social media, Google, and mobile phones have done much to further individual freedom, since as the vacant expanses of “Rain Song” divulge, he sees only people “Alone, in the cloud,” while somewhere in the distance “Invisible hands make invisible plans.”
Contrary to less doomy commentators on technology like Evgeny Morozov or Astra Taylor, Paradise frames this state of affairs as one that can’t be reversed, as one in which we’re all inescapably trapped. In “Pyramids on Mars,” it wallops the listener with the fatalistic declaration, “Things would always be this way,” while in “Phantom Freighter,” it reproduces this declaration almost verbatim when it asserts, “It’s always this way.” Throughout its 39-minute running time, this conviction of inevitability and defeatism is reinforced by the band’s musical approach, which attaches itself to incessant synth figures and relentless percussion so as to mirror the perceived relentlessness of technological growth. Even more impressively, the wild yet mechanistic sound that guitarist Ivan Lip has alighted on paints something of the Babel ushered in by the Internet Age. As it rips through such torrents as “USS ISS” and “Kingdom Come,” it gives off an overspilling confusion of wails and shrieks, recreating the incoherence of a thousand blogs shouting at cross-purposes from each other.
Yet if Lip and his cohorts in Pop. 1280 had read their Morozov or Taylor, then they would know that approaching “Technology” as some entity or force in its own right — independent from the contexts in which it appears and takes shape — only exacerbates the problems they spend the duration of Paradise highlighting. To single out and reify “Technology” as the chief bogeyman in our current plight, as they do in the ominously lurching “Last Undertaker,” is to turn a blind eye to the specific historical conditions that give rise to particular technologies and particular uses of technology. It therefore allows these conditions to persist undetected and unchanged, perpetuating a world in which, even if we didn’t have iPhones and Facebook, our materialism, consumerism, and individualism would still find some other crap to obsess over. That’s why we would all do well to remember that, when listening to Pop. 1280’s horrific vision of Paradise, we’re listening to a symptom and not the cause of the mess we’re in.