The practice of reimagining film scores poses a slippery hermeneutic problem for artists and critics alike. Adding modern scores to silent films can feel like an insertion of the subject into the object, while rescoring films that already have original scores can feel like a removal of something essential from the object. The former is often portrayed as an inherently narcissistic venture in which the original film acts as nothing more than a fertile canvas for the ego of the artist (or the affectations of several competing artists, as with the many rescores of Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc). And the latter approach was brought to public attention when Zane Lowe curated an alternative score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive back in 2014. After a great deal of quibbling about “the director’s intentions” ensued to a choir of furiously jerking knees, the gatekeepers of our culture ultimately deemed the film too sacred for the grubby money fingers of Eric Prydz and Bring Me the Horizon.
The latest mixtape from UK producer Sega Bodega, SS (2017), endeavors to reimagine film scores with a more honest approach, one that carefully balances a true respect for the object with a constructive assertion of the subject. The concept is fairly simple: each track condenses the vibe of a specific film into a new score for its commercial trailer. As such, the record manifests as both an exercise in structural limitation and an expression of artistic identity. While tightly chained to the visual demands of the trailers in question (in terms of timing, context, pacing, and mood), Sega Bodega remains free to explore new sounds and technologies according to his own creative whims. And most importantly, he manages this in ways that do not disrupt the aesthetic established in his previous work.
Since moving from Glasgow to London, it’s clear that Sega Bodega has adapted to the filth and smog of the capital and its increasingly gritty club scene. Earlier releases were much in the vein of his Glaswegian contemporaries at Warp Records: tunes of the “quintessential banger” variety that politely say nah to form and genre through grinning teeth (see: 2013’s “Konerak” and 2014’s “Stay Nervous”). But more recently with tracks like “CC” and “Bacardi” he has started boiling those peppy highs down to their narcotic essence. Your tolerance has peaked, and those sticky hooks have lost their sexy pure-white allure. Like, it’s a real problem now. You’re huffing bass lines so addictive that you spend weeks excavating their remnants from your nostrils, with euphoric builds so acidic that they flip your stomach and plunge you into an immediate comedown.
These disorienting scenes of hedonistic decline continue throughout SS in ways that both translate and elevate the films being rescored. “Requiem” captures the feelings and trappings of addiction in carnivalesque melodies that melt and churn and *bleugh* their way through a fucked-up, coke-fueled, balloon-huffing haze. Even at this kinda drowsy, kinda waltzy, kinda lazy tempo, there is no hint of rest. Instead, the track stings and aches and burns as it tries to break out of this unbearable agitation, only to sink deeper and deeper into it with every, single, desperate, lurch — it conjures the bodily action of standard dance music without the same old liberating teleology. Shygirl drawls through her trademark voice-inside-your-head monotone with enough nonchalance to make us do very bad things, to ourselves, to others, and then before you know it, you’re bursting through limbo, back into your sweaty PJs.
The track speaks for a deeper understanding of its source material, an understanding often manifest in the meticulous choice of sounds throughout SS. Of course, electronic music producers have sampled archetypes from classic cinema to the point of making a cliché out of a cliché, but Sega Bodega gives them a little more than a quick kiss on the cheek. He handles these archetypes with studious care, generously scattering them over the mixtape like deft comments in the margins of an exhausted book. “Dogtooth” is a plucky movement of nylon that stirs up familiar sentiments, as each instrument piles up one by one: slightly tense, slightly playful, and utterly conventional. “Pi” skims the filmic language of tension in an echo chamber sparsely decorated with blunt drones and rusty strings, almost as if a tune is trying to assemble itself from disparate elements as they slowly and infinitely drift away from each other. The pianos and marimbas on “Tree of Life” play ball with some mysterious arpeggios on a comfy bed of orchestral flourishes, fit for previews at a mid-afternoon screening of Casablanca.
Obviously nostalgia has a lot to it, and this can be heard pretty clearly on certain tracks. “Begotten” is a gorgeous cut of retro-synth magic that yawns so wide that it tears open new galaxies in the process; you can just about feel those legato strokes of heat every time a star collapses in the distance. As the track pulsates in time with the flickering cellulite misery of its corresponding trailer, you’ve got these proper lush chords, omg those chords, casting a dim light over the twisted bodies, devastating yet somehow optimistic. A similar sense of nostalgia has undeniably made up a crucial part of Sega Bodega’s aesthetic on previous releases, one that yearns for unfelt feelings among the night tubes and housing estates of London circa 2007. However, nostalgia misleads our collective memory toward a fiction: an endearing snapshot of the past distorted through time and reframed in the misty dreams of a disenchanted society. That we are inclined to think about the objects of our nostalgia as “things as they truly were in the past and should now be in the present” only sets us up for further disillusionment. In order to open up this liminal space between subject and object (where truth and imagination lock hands in an eternal dalliance), we must deceive ourselves.
By embracing the active role of the present in our conception of the past, it’s clear that Sega Bodega has no misconceptions about the deceptive nature of our nostalgia. Rather than simply fossilizing these films in a checklist of clichés and tropes, he treats them as living works shaped by the ongoing engagement of both artists and critics. That is, he endearingly suspends their essence in a wistful memory before dragging that essence into modern software and piping it out through subwoofer cones. “Aliens” takes an unrelenting onslaught of horror film tropes — chilling droplets of atonal pizzicato rain down on animalistic growls and howls, screaming strings drill a tinnitus buzz into your eardrums — and sets it against a thorny dancehall rhythm so raw that it would probably make Drake plunge a microphone into his forehead. Sega Bodega has always had the knack for making the kind of straight-up murderous dance music that corrupts our innocent and supple youth, but when he does his worst on an actual horror film, it really makes those blood splatters pop! outta the screen. Likewise, “Stalker” accurately channels its corresponding film in the sense that it’s pretty desolate. But then the paranoid tones of sirens and bells succumb to a Jersey club kick pattern, which pounds out for like 40 seconds before remembering that maybe a post-apocalyptic Soviet film is not the best setting for a house party.
Okay, okay, the track “X” definitely shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t work. Industrial drum loops launch a nuclear assault on every single frequency that your brain can register, crunching and scraping and grinding with enough force to satisfy your repressed aggression for about nine years. At the same time, precious angels beam down dramatic Zimmeresque string harmonies as they ride atop blooming mushroom clouds. It really shouldn’t work. But after a while ,you begin to tune out the differences between these two timbral surfaces and appreciate their similarities: how they twist and turn like barbed wire around a majestic sequoia, unraveling with the familiar pacing and coloring of a movie trailer while remaining completely alien to us. Still, it shouldn’t work at all. And yet there you are, having a little moment, rashing up with goosebumps as the fragile abyss between past and present collapses more with every scratch and bruise.
In these more discordant (and somewhat absurd) tracks, the internal logic of nostalgia is laid bare. Sega Bodega reorients these films using sounds and structures that are both anachronistic and archetypal to the source in question — a sense of space and time that is romantic yet wildly distorted. The tracks on SS (2017) don’t attempt to critically examine the original films being rescored, nor to hold their original contexts up against present-day ironies, nor to sabotage them entirely for a quick applause and a decent blurb in fucking Time Out. While many artists have done as such with varying degrees of success, this record comes across as something way more authentic: a sincere paean to cinema and its rich musical vocabulary.