Fucked, in its sense as a sonic quality, deserves a little unpacking. It’s a word that many use without recourse to a lexical definition (apart from its obvious connection to the quintessential curse and copulation word in English). As Wittgenstein would have it, fucked shares a family resemblance with many overlapping qualities, lacking a definitive center of meaning but clearly having a sense. Few albums better present an opportunity to address fucked’s complex flavor than Thought Broadcast’s Emergency Stairway, a nightmarish midden of fucked attributes.
Who knows when people started saying it (again, in its sonic sense), but my guess is somewhere between the age of proto-punk and noise rock. Suicide and Throbbing Gristle are perhaps the first bands to explore the aesthetic, but it has since blossomed: Butthole Surfers were fucked. The Residents are fucked. Caroliner are fucked. Wolf Eyes are obviously fucked.
We start to get a basic picture of those qualities that overlap. The first quality, and the most obvious on Emergency Stairway, is that fucked sound employs a certain rhythmic tension. This tension may be somewhat polyrhythmic, but not in the same way as, say, afrobeat. It’s an uncomfortable tension, produced here by strangely-timed delays and the most basic of drum sounds. It’s not a rhythm that needs sustaining by effort, another perhaps essential quality to the fucked aesthetic that feels utterly drained of care. Thought Broadcast’s Ravi Binning clearly displays no lack of compositional prowess, but he preserves the illusion of thoughtlessness, and it’s this illusion that evokes the sensations of experiencing a hangover, an opium den, dissociative drugs, and generalized fear.
Fucked sounds create paranoia. Thought broadcasting is a symptom of schizophrenia in which the patient believes others can experience his or her innermost thoughts, that without speaking others can hear their internal monologue. It’s an appropriate name for this project; the sort of paranoia that would follow such a phenomenon must be near paralytic. The fear that seeps in to the psyche upon listening to this album is something akin to walking into a room that has black bloodstains all over the floor. A contributing element is the heavily modulated vocal sounds, which in their emotionless haze hang deep in the mix, incomprehensible and empty.
Fucked is a past participle; fucked things are worked on in some way. It’s a common expletive to throw at musical equipment, having both a positive and negative sense: this amp is totally fucked and just makes this scummy fuzz sound; this record is fucked, but it’s caught on an amazing loop. Emergency Stairway evokes a kind of Lynchian anxiety that something terrible has happened, something inexplicable and unknown, throwing the listener into a state of uncertainty. This is of course all imaginary; just like how the confusion of watching Inland Empire only affects us insofar as our imagination is powerful, Emergency Stairway threatens no real danger. But this is by no means normal music. There are no happy melodies, no epic climaxes. This is damaged music, or the music of damage itself.
This unspecific damage is what perhaps most characterizes the concept of fuckedness. Sources of damage are multifarious, but here is the essential quality. Sonically, it can manifest as everything from circuit-bent toys and bit-destroyed signals to I-don’t-give-a-fuck riffing and deep sludge. Simulation of this experience is what Emergency Stairway is about; if you have any interest in being there, or if you’re already there and you want company, you’ll find it on this album.