The fortunes of Joss Whedon’s Buffy have been mixed, first hailed as the emergence of intelligent, postmodern horror television, then consigned to the internet B-list of obsessive academic and online geekery. But enough time may have passed that the fickle wheel of fashion is turning again. Xander Harris, as the one whose only special powers were living in his parents’ basement and wearing Hawaiian shirts, was hardly the series’ darkest character. Where do we arrive, then, when we combine the Buffy reference — cartoony but smart teen horror in popular culture — with Urban Gothic? The latter — which signifies the work’s role as putative soundtrack to Brian Keene’s pulpy novel of the same name, itself a tribute to Edward Lee — is likewise hardly an unfamiliar reference. Indeed, the identification of the home-ly as the site of the greatest fears and insecurities (think of Xander’s fear of clowns) has a venerable, even stereotypical history in the Gothic tradition, but it is when we think of the mutated union of these trends that we begin to see a more accurate picture of Xander Harris, the band, emerging.
That is, we have here a serious endeavor into the regressive (i.e., teenage) fears produced by the horrific and/or Gothic imaginary, but one that is mediated through the kitschy meta-lens of the ironic distance of self-aware postmodern popular culture. In Xander Harris’ recreation of the soundtrack style both of campy but serious horror films like Argento’s Tenebrae or the 1982 Cat People remake, on the one hand, along with that of tongue-in-cheek 80s works like Return of the Living Dead or Once Bitten, on the other, we see the above-mentioned themes meld. And though Italo disco and spacesynth originally drew on a sci-fi imaginary, while ‘horror disco’ was confined to moments like Fright Night (with a few exceptions — Hot Blood, I’m looking at you), we see in their contemporary audi-recreation the recombination of the sonic aesthetics of the unimaginable exterior (‘space’) with visions of the visceral interior made manifest through the frame of the wound (and this perhaps reflects a tendency to extremity and bodily degradation evident in other aspects of popular culture, particularly pornography). Given that Keene’s novel is essentially a splatter-update on the haunted house genre, this (literally) incisive revelation of the horrific lying beneath the banal seems fitting.
Unlike many other bands looking to the darker and less populist side of the 80s for inspiration, however, Xander Harris eschew a lo-fi palette, employing a cleanly produced sound with judicious occasional touches of technology that clearly has a more recent provenance. In this, it’s reminiscent of the work of Bottin, whose 2009 album Horror Disco is perhaps the major touchstone here and is also a more perfect manifestation of the atmosfear to which XH and others aspire (and if such aspiration involves multiple expiration, so much the better). Having said that, however, we’re spared the one vocal track that works like these tend to provide (usually a mistake, even if Bottin’s “Disco For The Devil” was a counter-example) and given, instead, a few spoken samples providing a Thrill Kill Kult-esque mood more akin to a neglected ‘hippie horror’ genre than to the sophisticated psycho-sexual thrills or teen consumerism of its descendants.
Continuing the cinematic theme, the ‘soundtrack to an imaginary film’ (made explicit here in the first and last tracks being titled “Opening Credits” and “End Credits”), which seems to be having its day — or night — recently in the work of artists like The Giallos Flame or Umberto, certainly has its satisfactions, but, given that the existential justification for the classic soundtrack (that is, a film) is missing, the absent referent may give rise to problematics. Here, many two-minute vignettes that might be perfect for, say, a street stalking scene feel like they need developing into something richer and deeper, something employing the structural manipulation of elements characteristic of long-form dance music — and the highlights of the album fall where this has been allowed to occur, as on “Tanned Skin Dress” and “Fucking Eat Your Face.” Pursuing the subject of absence, we can see a parallel between the rise of retro-horror cinema like House of the Devil or the sublimely ridiculous Blood Junkie, and the creation of soundtracks to 80s horror movies — movies that are so incredibly terrifying that they cannot actually ever come into existence, but remain disembodied presences. But in contrast to retro films, music like Xander Harris’ is refracted through a triple or even quadruple mediation in being (1) the soundtrack to (2) the imaginary film of (3) a novel which is itself a (4) tribute piece.
What we encounter here, then, is not the fantasy of violence, but the fantasy of the fantasy of violence. The simulation that only refers back to bodily viscerality in fact ties in very nicely with 80s horror’s obsession with the fearful and disgusting outcomes of the body-machine complex and its overlap with the problematic border between reality and representation; David Cronenberg’s work is paradigmatic, particularly Videodrome or The Fly. In other words, the tension that exists in the mediation of violence such that it takes on the quality of reality only by being named, not by being embodied in the subject’s own experience, can be read into the contrast between the titles of the tracks here and the music itself — which, while certainly sinister, is by no means saturated with and troubled by violence in the manner of, say, a Suicide.
In Xander Harris’ wetware scenarios, however, we come face to face, or face to screen, not only with Frankenstein, the technological monster or the un-dead in the shell, but also with the techno-sublime, the utopian: and this is apparent in the album’s slower moments, which are reminiscent of the majesty of Kraftwerk’s “Metropolis,” Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack, or the gravitas of Tangerine Dream. Ultimately, in these variations on a theme — in the voracious consumption, recombination, and regurgitation of the synthetic horror of the 70s and 80s — Xander Harris mirror the cannibal mutants inhabiting Keene’s house — and, as we should all be/aware, the house, in turn, mirrors the self. What evil lurks in the hearts of men? Xander Harris know…