[Darling; 2016]

Styles: hip-hop, electronic, sacred songs
Others: Arca, internet dating, Fred Christ

If you go to the relatively new label Darling Recordings’s website and find the page for their sixth release — the self-titled debut by FLANCH, catalogued DAR007 — you will come across this sentence: “FLANCH is an earth-shaking album and project that deserves a spot in the ‘real’ world.”

This sentence reminds me of a line from Almost Famous, when Patrick Fugit shouts in frustration at Kate Hudson: “When and where does this ‘real world’ occur?” In this case, I imagine whoever wrote this copy was using “real world” as a counterpoint to the fleeting world of internet cultural proliferation. On one hand, you have an endless SoundCloud surge of individual tracks, an infinite procession of ones and zeroes almost impossible to digest in any systematic way. On the other hand, you have the “real world,” a place of proper albums and physical formats (FLANCH is available on pink cassette, by the way), of critical attention and perhaps even commercial reward. The “real world” is a place where something can get noticed and last.

Last year, The New Yorker published a profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, a young woman raised in the extremely conservative and inflammatory Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. As Phelps-Roper came to interact with people outside of the church through her use of social media, she began to question the church’s values and ultimately struck out on her own. This New Yorker story presents a rather different take on the internet-“real world” dichotomy. Phelps-Roper was raised in a tightly-knit community with a strong sense of tradition and close family ties — all things that we regularly hear intelligent people mourn the loss of — but it was the internet that ultimately delivered her. In this narrative, the vastness of the internet serves as a gateway to empathy and understanding. The blinders of a horribly backward and very real community are washed away by the Twitter stream.

If you think about the preceding two paragraphs, there is, I think, an antinomy here. The internet affords us both much less and much more than the “real world.” Of course, the idea that these are truly two separate spheres we’re talking about is a fallacy. As we spend more and more time online, elements inevitably creep back out into the rest of our lives. (We’ve all heard of studies documenting our decreased attention spans or crumbling foundations of civility.)

FLANCH is a record that explores this blurring line between the online and the offline, and it is a record steeped in the aesthetics and iconographies of both the internet and religion. The production on this album melds clanging, futuristic beats with sometimes-Levantine-sounding melodies. The tone is variously devotional and oppressive, exalted and alienated. The record features hard-hitting raps and almost-rhapsodic singing, and the lyrics are at times explicitly religious, at others irreverent and profane, and occasionally a droll mixture of the two. (The track “hal0” concludes: “Come into my immortal spirit/ Come deep into my immortal soul.”)

This record sounds and looks like a document of a culture in flux, a snapshot of humanity turned strange by our own creations. This is most evident in the treatment of the vocals on the record — almost all are heavily processed, some beyond intelligibility — but also in its accompanying visuals, from the futuristic humanoid featured in the cover art to the videos for the first two songs, both of which are built around images of the human form deranged by digital processes.

FLANCH stakes out ground in a number of different genres: The production is often reminiscent of Arca — an acknowledged influence — and many of these songs are best described as dark, forward-thinking hip-hop. But the second track, “pretty girl,” is a sultry piece of big-canvas R&B that reminds me a bit of Autre Ne Veut, and elsewhere we find almost folky, psychedelic vocals, as well as more abstract and noisy instrumental passages. The album also features a wide range of voices, from Indiana rappers Sirius Blvck and Devin Dabney (who turns in some great performances here) to the singer and actress Krystal Worrell (whose voice anchors “pretty girl”) and the Bloomington-based singer-songwriter (and Darling labelmate) Stone Irr.

If this all makes FLANCH sound like a messy album, I promise you it’s not. At just over 20 minutes, this is a concise, deliberate record, on which all of its diverse strains have been marshaled under a clear vision and intent. While information about the release is relatively scant — and FLANCH is nothing if not a collaborative project — this vision and intent seem to belong primarily to the composer and producer Peter Timberlake and co-producer Ben Peterson. Timberlake is a lapsed Christian from Indiana who attended Ball State (where most, if not all, of the other artists who contributed to this record also studied) and currently lives in Los Angeles. While Timberlake may no longer be devout, he is still clearly haunted by the language and imagery of Christian devotion, just as he seems to be fascinated by internet culture and online social exchange.

My favorite song on this record is probably the last one, “tender,” a quiet lullaby that begins: “I met you online/ And I like your pictures/ But I don’t know if you’re a real person/ Don’t play with my heart anymore.” It’s comedy and tragedy wrapped up in a fragile little one-and-a-half minute pop song, an oddly poignant lament about the hope of connection and the lurking doubt that maybe it’s just a mirage.

Links: FLANCH - Darling

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