Alienation is a fact of life, a mark of every change we experience that ends up being for the worst. Of course, “worst” all depends on your perspective, so whether we regard the palpable stylistic change that separates Matt Hill’s earlier work from Alienation as a textbook case of estrangement is all a matter of whether we were hoping for yet another album of studious, immersive, yet somewhat familiar homages to giallo and italo-disco music. In Alienation, the anxiety-inducing and sweat-coaxing tropes that defined many a bloodthirsty Italian horror movie in the 60s, 70s, and 80s have been left behind, while in their stead the L.A.-based producer has wielded reverb’d keys, soft-edged ambience, and abstracted synths to build a slow-burning procession of melancholia, longing, nostalgia, and isolation. In many ways, this change is for the better, especially after four solo albums that achieved all any sane person ever could in the realm of soundtrack-influenced giallocore. Yet for those who were hoping for something more oppressive, haunting, and sinister, well, they may indeed end up feeling a tad alienated by Mr Hill’s unexpected about-face.
Still, the departure isn’t quite as dramatic as you might think. For one, giallo and the various other horror-related genres Hill’s been plumbing since 2008 have always been centrally concerned with alienation, even when the murders have been coming thick-and-fast. In fact, they almost always use murders, not so much for the pure sake of sensationalistic violence, but as a device to plunge the relationships between their principal characters into ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt, as these characters suddenly come to realize they don’t know each other well enough to categorically say that one of their lovers, best friends, or family members isn’t the mysterious murderer currently slicing-and-dicing hapless victims all over town. It’s this alienating sense of mystery, confusion, and not-knowing that forms the thematic crux of giallo, and it’s once again a foggy sense of ambivalence, insecurity, and detachment that pervades Alienation and its drizzly eulogies to a more secure, unequivocal existence.
This couldn’t be more tangible than in the title-track opener, where an exceedingly wet, alternating keyboard vamp underlines a synthesized flute melody, one that snakes vaporously in the air like some tantalizingly emotive yet faint memory. Given the misty, suggestive texture of the instrumentation, it’s nigh-on impossible to determine whether this melody is lamenting a distant past or an ambivalent present. Nonetheless, it’s clear that, whereas earlier albums such as Confrontations and From the Grave… explored a more objective alienation embedded in structural (aggressive, violent, murderous) relations between people, Alienation explores the subjective flip-side, delving into the private psychological fallout of ambiguous relationships, estranged social lives, and existential flux.
In other words, such filmy, semi-limpid cuts as the chillwave-leaning “White Night” and the piano-led “Lost Night” are about what you feel when you don’t really know where you stand with people, when you’ve been cut off from those you used to love, and when you’re convinced the best parts of you can’t be recovered from the mythical past in which they’ve been lost. Or, to put it in Matt Hill’s own words, these and the other seven songs on Alienation musically realize a “vision of a man experiencing a series of alienating situations.” How they do this varies smoothly from track-to-track, but in the night-stalking “Drifters,” highly distorted electro-bass and creeping, tinkling, flashing electronics serve to evoke the threat other people seemingly pose when we lead increasingly secluded and anti-social lives. The pulsing bass is fuzzed-out and fattened-up out of all proportion, as if depicting how much the reclusive sociophobe exaggerates or misperceives the dangers inherent to his neighbor, while the percussive oscillations of Hill’s strobe-effect insinuate an ever-approaching evil, of that kind that resides solely in insinuation.
“Drifters” is one of two pieces that retain the malevolent pregnancy of Hill’s previous output, with the other being the bass-driven nocturnal disco of “Dawn of Mirrors.” Both stand out amongst “visions” that are surprisingly introspective and emotive for the man who collaborated with Antoni Maiovvi on last year’s dystopian Law Unit, yet even if every other song exerts a decidedly wistful, lugubrious pull in comparison to the rest of his canon, they still all maintain one very important link that helps to not only remember that you’re listening to Umberto, but also that you’re listening to the sound of alienation, estrangement, lostness, and abandonment. That is, many of them jettison an obvious developmental, cyclical, climactic, or “narrative” structure in favor of a more linear, static form that kind of just hangs there in limbo, severed from any current or thread that might bring things to a conventional or meaningful conclusion. This is manifest in “Black Sea,” where the single-note bass echoes inertly and Edward Tonoyan’s voice repeatedly intones a monastic chant; it’s also manifest in closer “Passage,” where the same baroque, piano-sprinkled riff predominates, undercutting any conviction that a passage from one place to another has actually occurred, despite the song’s vocal-carrying, ascendant bridge.
It’s because of the absence of movement and progression that Alienation really does sound like alienation, like that state where you’re dislocated from the thrust of life and society, despite formal appearances to the contrary. However, as affecting as Hill’s evocation of lonely estrangement is in such electronic watercolors as “Awakenings” and “White Nights,” it sometimes makes for a desolate listen, one that’s perhaps a little too desolate in its lack of evolution, resolution, and hope. That said, it certainly makes for one of Hill’s most interesting records to date, one that signals his transition from the giallo- and John Carpenter-tributes of his earlier records to the emotional intelligence and stylistic diversity that will possibly define him from now on. Indeed, for an American producer who once hid behind the Italian sobriquet “Umberto,” his use of Russian for “alienation” on the album’s front cover and the self-declared inspiration its personal music takes from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova commemorates a new expansion of focus, one that might alienate him from his earlier self, but will ultimately reconcile him with its more mature future counterpart.