Siobhan Southgate

[Opal Tapes; 2014]

Styles: decaying techno, non-communal house, placeless ambient
Others: Thought Broadcast, Actress, Perc, Hype Williams

Southgate may be a city in Michigan, but if you looked for Siobhan’s Southgate on Google Maps, you’d never find it. You might be lucky enough to stumble on dimmed techno and nightmarish electronica, and you might find the fingerprints of the semi-anonymous Travis Galloway, but you’d never correspond it to a living, breathing geographical space, let alone the various social activities and enterprises that define Galloway’s hometown. From the very first echo’d drum-beat and dystopian synth-flow, and from every one of Southgate’s half a dozen insidiously derelict night-trains, there emerges a very palpable sense that Galloway’s lo-fi ambient house could never spring out of or be inserted into the places, situations, and rituals that so often invest music with its significance. Because of this disassociation, it fails to evoke the city it’s named after and instead refers to nothing beyond a fogged and isolated mind.

In the distant and more recent past, this detachment wasn’t so much of a problem, since technology and society hadn’t yet drifted to the point where music could be severed from the events, ceremonies, gatherings, and geography responsible for imbuing it with meaning, which pretty much seems to be what has happened with such a muffled thrum of dingy samples as opener “Del Ray ‘97.” Hence compositions like Wagner’s “Bridal March,” the first bar of which is more than enough to put even the most unromantic of types in the mind for weddings, or the whole grunge scene, which quite possibly might elicit visions of rain and abandoned timber yards. Yet now, with a producer like Galloway being able to hole themselves away and shape the track’s insidiously hostile atmospherics without so much as stepping out of his apartment or coming into contact with another human being, the likelihood that its rusted tribalism and subconscious tension will be the expression of particular social happenings, communities, and circumstances has dramatically nosedived.

We see this with “New Wave Retailing,” even if its subwoofer pulse and damp keys run as though detailing the minutes of Saturday night at your local ecstasy-decorated club, what with the steady acceleration of its palpitating bass and the merciless constancy of its 4/4 treadmill. Yet the buried, faint quality of its recording, as well as the sporadic intervention of pitchshifted dives and rippling electro-tails, underline the distance at which distant electronica like this stands from the rest of the world, from anything communal, interpersonal, or participatory. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since it’s the fruit of the internet and the power the net gives producers like Galloway to circumvent the usual channels of conception, recording, distribution, and performance; to circumvent the Salzburgian courts of Mozart’s formative years, the New York block parties where hip-hop was born, and the Czech peasantry that Bartók recorded when documenting Slavic folk. As a result, it’s difficult to believe that Southgate transmits the sound of a particular time, place, and culture, except that of a lone individual who turns himself inward in the attempt to create an illusory substitute for a world he’s lost.

“The opposite of broadcast: the distribution economics of the internet favor infinite niches, not one-size-fits-all.”
– David Shields, Reality Hunger, 2010

This means that throwbacks to 1980s sci-fi like “Night School” are perfect for an era when so many individuals are helplessly unattached, unemployed, and uprooted. Its hallucinatory yet insistent thickening superficially recalls a state of emergency within a paranoiac wasteland, yet the gradualist interleaving of flashing synths, waves of eddying feedback, and indecipherably lowered vocals suggest that the paranoiac wasteland endures solely within the individual’s head. And this is just as it should be, because this 21st-century individual has nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to see; and so when nine minutes of blustery digital hardcore is created and consumed within such a vacuum, it shouldn’t be a shock to discover that the only thing it reflects is just this very same vacuum.

Ditto “Quick In,” which captures the inconsequential dislocation of so many of us via the perpetual looping of a thrift-store drum machine and wafer-thin gusts of incidental noise that evaporate before being fully registered. But if this all sounds hopelessly grim, just let it be known that there are some advantages to social disconnection, at least for the musician. Torn away from the people, groups, and institutions that formed a cradle and audience for her music, this same music is simultaneously torn away from the need to fulfill a particular function, be this providing a nation with a triumphant superiority complex or simply injecting a party with a shot of danceable energy. With this newfound absence of social/functional constraint, auteurs like Galloway are free to shape cuts like “Rail Split” to suit their insular whims, treating similarly untied listeners to another stomping beat whose potential as dance fodder is willfully hobbled by the subterranean cloudiness of the mix, by vaguely ominous breaths of industrial smoke that dirty this mix even further, and by the track’s abrupt end after a mere three minutes. Yet the irony of this rise in artistic freedom is that it so often accelerates the drop in wider connectedness, relevance, and impact, such that anyone listening to the rigid-cum-soupy techno of “Rail Split” is left unsure as to what to do with its faintly schizophrenic pounding.

That is, if they weren’t already unsure, because in the end, Southgate reveals itself as music for all those moments, occasions, and periods when we’re cut off from the flow of human life. It’s electronica for the aimless city-wanderer cocooned in their headphones, for the jobless bedroom-dweller cocooned in their headphones, and for the loveless web-troller cocooned in their headphones, and despite the frequent surges of up-tempo technotics and mood-pregnant synthscapes, the predominantly removed conditions of its conception and consumption entail that it’s really only ever going to signify the individual’s modern-day, technology-enabled(/enforced?) purgatory. But at least when someone asks you to show them Southgate on the map, you now know where to point.

Links: Siobhan - Opal Tapes

Most Read