Pure Ground Standard of Living

[Chondritic Sound; 2015]

Styles: industrial, minimal dark wave, EBM, EDM, power electronics
Others: Front 242, Skinny Puppy, Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten

Industrial music is harsh, stark, and hateful, and Pure Ground are no exception. The Los Angeles duo has been the personification of austere dirges and grating dins since 2012, with its first album Daylight and Protection being as desolate, ugly, and misanthropic as anything belonging to the genre’s unholy canon. Yet as laudably dank and dismal as their previous cassettes have been, the band has always offered more than superficial aggression and enmity.

Take Standard of Living. It’s not just that their second album is blighted by enough coarse synths and barked vocals to create an inhospitable atmosphere, but that they cohere these bleak elements into a rejection of the modern world and its falsity. From the introductory prowling of “Second Skin” through to the strained bursts of “Tides,” G. Holger and J. Short employ an ascetic minimalism that functions as a conscious rejection of the superficial adornments and “advances” of the 21st century.

In “War in Every House,” they critique this superficiality, revealing its underlying poverty and parsimony. They rant such indictments as “The desire to conquer/ The desire for more,” while the grubbiness, simplicity, and endlessness of a quadruplet-based synthesizer riff embodies the essential meagerness of today’s materialism. This synth line sounds decidedly cheap and vulgar, so cheap and vulgar in fact that it betrays the true value of the “gold” mentioned in the line, “Every war is fought/ Toward more gold.”

Most of the album is set within this sonic impoverishment. “Watch the Lines Grow” is a march of stuttering keys and tinny drum machines, matched in their dingy squalor only by the squidgy claps and grayed chords of “Centuries of Gold.” Similarly, “In Silence” is an elegy of rudimentary bleeps and whirs. Listening to its murky tale of how we’re all “Passing the ages to waste away,” it quickly becomes apparent that Pure Ground exploit out-of-date analog equipment in order to affirm the illusory nature of technological progress. They eschew contemporary instruments because they deny that these have provided any genuine advance over supposedly obsolete gear, over the forlorn synths and sequencers “In Silence” uses as a figure for the concealed primitiveness of purportedly superior tech. Moreover, it’s this denial that acts as a synecdoche for their wider denial that newfangled gadgets and gizmos, be they iPhones, microwaves, or biometric passports, have done anything to fundamentally improve our Standard of Living.

Unsurprisingly, it’s to our standards of living that Pure Ground direct the bulk of their skepticism and ire, regarding them as something dangerous to avoid and also something fraudulent to deconstruct. In “Poison,” the duo’s scabrous EBM invokes the first of these unfortunate properties, conjuring a claustrophobic mood of threat and menace that’s only heightened by such lyrics as “There’s poison flooding in your eyes/ There’s poison falling from your mouth.” From such declarations, it becomes manifest that the band views the creature comforts and fineries of modern life with acute suspicion, as poisonous “trappings” that might just trap us at the end of the long process of indulgence, decadence, complacency, degeneration, and destruction they institute.

This suspicion is amplified in “Centuries of Gold,” where a correspondingly dire urgency underwrites Short’s warning, “Penetrate the spirit/ Watch the flesh dissolve.” Within the song’s harried walls, Pure Ground describe a society where isolation, individualism, and fearful protectionism have become so entrenched as to stultify human development. Its pixelated rushing and skimpy harmonies evoke an upsurge in personal detachment, atomization, and stagnation, and if anyone were hoping for a slither of optimism, Short quashes this hope with the verse, “There are no doorways/ No need for exit/ Barricades erected/ That ensure our aim.”

And it’s not only that the band fears our Standard[s] of Living will prevent them from growing as people. They also fear that these standards will constrain them so much they’ll be forced to assume fake and inauthentic identities, as witnessed by “Second Skin.” Here, a skulking, four-bar heartbeat drives such hoarse confessions as, “The mask is on/ Gloves pulled tight/ My second skin/ Against the night.” These lines divulge the worry that today’s society is so inflexible in its existential demands on the individual that she has no choice but to conform to them if she wants to remain a member of it. If she wants to avoid harm, rebuke, or rejection — if she wants to avoid the “ill wind” and the “pavement [which] exhales its caustic breath” — she has to play one of the few roles available to her, otherwise she’ll suffer the kind of anxiety and strain furtively conveyed by the track’s insistent chorus.

In addition to similarly themed lyrics, it’s the rigid delivery of their vocals that also reflects a world of artificiality and duplicity. When their observations and criticisms aren’t grimly shouted, they’re framed in a semi-monotonous gothic drawl, sounding halfway between an Americanized Ian Curtis and an antsy Peter Murphy. It’s precisely the affected stiffness and deadened anger of such voicings that express the idea that all voices within our present era are similarly contrived and constructed. More importantly, if the voice is a symbol of the individual’s identity, then the wooden invocations in “Watch the Lines Grow” or “In Silence,” for example, allude to how all identities are similarly wooden.

However, this “wooden” talk does not mean that Standard of Living is itself a counterfeit or phony record. Its harnessing of somber minimalism and disheveled Korgs perfectly mirrors a civilization whose seedy foundations are obscured by a glitzy surface. Its brutish riffs and inexorable nastiness drag us down to this base level, and the “beauty” of the record is that it robs us of the desire to climb back up. This is not because Pure Ground and their abusiveness teach us the kind of self-loathing that makes us think we’re no longer worthy of our lost opulence. No, it’s because they teach us that their degraded underworld and this opulence have always been one and the same, and that the more we grope for one, the more we’re pulled into the other.

Links: Pure Ground - Chondritic Sound

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