Exploring Jezebel On a Business Trip to London

[Blackest Ever Black; 2015]

Styles: industrial, techno, ambient, S&M, emasculation
Others: Vatican Shadow, Jason Lescalleet, Nurse with Wound, Throbbing Gristle

Let’s talk about men. If we’re to take Dominick Fernow’s word (or music) for it, they’re fucked up. They’re stranded in a post-feminist, post-queer, post-racial, and post-nationalist environment, and they don’t know what to do. Our brave new world is humming with similarly new conventions, identities, and norms, yet the stereotyped Classical Male hasn’t been able to keep up with its advances, which confront him with his own confused obsolescence. He tries to take a step forward, yet the pull of his former power and the absence of viable alternative role models leaves him with his feet caught between two eras. Without any clear direction or any doubtless certainties, he meanders in a fraught senselessness, a senselessness Fernow reinterprets on On a Business Trip to London, his second album as Exploring Jezebel.

Listening to this album for the first time, there’s an inclination to assume its blinded noise and neutered dance soundtrack a specific relationship between some dominatrix and her symbolically castrated man-slave. Labyrinthine song titles such as “I am made to greet each guest with a limp-wristed handshake” and “Duck shall not have the audacity to request release himself. Duck shall not gripe or complain about the duration of his confinement, the length of which will be solely determined by the mistress” describe an exploitative, emasculating, and esteem-killing dynamic between woman and man. Moreover, the fractured sadomasochistic narrative these 18 titles limn is paralleled by a coupling of lo-fi industrial skree and foggy midnight electronica, evoking a dingy, subterranean atmosphere in which an abused man lies addled and humiliated, lashed from one mortifying torture to another.

And there’s little doubt that On a Business Trip to London successfully renders an abusive relationship in all its grimy detail. “Only Carla” is an excruciating gush of torn static and twisted digitization, its surges in frequency denoting spikes in pain and its white discordance mirroring the incoherent disorientation of a man who’s received one too many raps to the knuckles. Yet Fernow has set the album’s sights wider than a simple portrait of a single affair or marriage, not least because he’s already been portraying such destructive ménages since 2008’s Locking Up the Husband’s Penis is Not Slavery, But Rather the Greatest Act of Kindness Given to a Man. Therefore, instead of leather, whips, and handcuffs, it’s safer to say his focus resides with a more general theme — that is, on the status of the male in the apparently progressive 21st century.

A fixation on this broader issue emerges with a more forensic inspection of the overwrought song titles and the music to which they refer. Let’s take a single one: “Since I am on a strict 500 calorie a day diet, I have the shape of a petite little woman, and my wife has paid for breast implants and facial surgery to make me more acceptable.” Quite beyond anything that this harshly oscillating, dimly clanging trail of binary might reveal of a particular household, it discloses Fernow’s ongoing concerns with not only the feminization of men, but with the feminization of men as a figure for their loss of a clearly distinct role within society. Everything about its three minutes and forty-five seconds sounds muddled, directionless, and suffocating, with its mess of wet beats and vague rhythms evoking the plight of the equally vague and uncertain male to disconcerting effect. No less unsettling is “Only Tease,” which strains a flow of high- and low-pitched tones through the jarring of a blender, in the process suggesting something of the pathological male inability to reconcile internalized masculine stereotypes and the desires arising from them with the demands of an ever-reforming society.

And Mr. Prurient isn’t the only person who sees the 21st Century Schizoid Man in all his confounded incapacitation, who sees his failure to harmonize the call to “man up” with the feminist call to be less dominant and chauvinistic, or with the economic demand to be happy about increasingly passive and sedentary (non-)jobs. A rising number of voices — including recent examples of journalists reporting on the International Conference on Masculinities and the European Unions’s reporting on the under-detection of male mental health issues — are now commenting on similar predicaments, so it’s highly relevant we have Business Trip and maddening experiments like “When Thanksgiving approaches, I’m usually in my third week without release.”

Here, a four-second keyboard loop is repeated to the point of torment, hinting at some escape to the nightclub (or at “release”), only to pull us back abruptly and begin its confined cycle again. Aside from the more prevalent examples of coarse-grained electronics and stupefied buzzcussion, such dance-like instances make for one of the album’s recurring motifs, yet they never appear without some intentional defect or distortion, be it the short-circuits of “Thanksgiving” or the swirling cloudiness of “Drugs. Alan, I don’t believe it but somebody saw her shooting up in the restroom.” This invites the assumption that, in addition to their representing the sexual denial and frustration afflicting the album’s gelded protagonist, they also refer to the new identity the modern-day male can never quite reach, the more cohesive and holistic persona that would balance his former masculine pride with the more progressive sensibilities symbolized by the abundant yet hobbled dance tropes. Consequently, without these faded instances ever reaching a clarity or consummating their faintly arousing promise, the album remains locked within its heaving nastiness, never stepping out into a more definite existence.

It’s because of this containment that, in the final analysis, On a Business Trip to London is more interesting than enjoyable. Yes, its imprisoned ambience singularly portrays the tamed, dazed condition of the male of the species, but it’s because of its need to stick to its themes of bemusement and futility that it relents from ever ascending to a gratifying climax or even to a discernible harmonic or melodic focus. It cages us in a wounded powerlessness and strangles us there for the duration, making us despise our own ears for mediating its damage in much the same way its anti-heroes end up despising their own bodies for mediating the caress of a belt. We try to claw our way out, yet it offers no light at the end of its noisome tunnel, no clear indication that the malignant susurrations of “My breasts were pierced” or “The grad student turned her eyes” are directing us to more complete selves or more harmonious relationships. So, in the end, we fall back exhausted and wait in misery, while Exploring Jezebel’s blurred industrial dub flagellates us with the conflicted threads of our own personality.

Links: Exploring Jezebel - Blackest Ever Black

Most Read