Swan Meat Tame

[Bala Club; 2018]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: dark fantasy, dark techno, OSTs, vocaloid
Others: Dasychira, x/o, Thoom, SHAPE

The imaginary, wider-eyed sister of the Ty Inc. beanie baby “Rocco the Raccoon” casts a fiendishly innocent stare from the cover of Swan Meat’s new EP. Staring into its super dilated pupils bewitches and unsettles. A feral creature turned submissively sweet when translated to plush, this one’s heart-shaped tag has been cheekily rebranded to “Tame.” The baby seems to come from a playhouse possessed with the grim dreams of its owner, stitched as those are with safety pins and ghostly wisps of mist.

Inanimate toys, especially those marketed toward young girls, are usually made to reiterate socially endorsed desires. They act as sanctioned symbols of oppressive, often commercial, structures, such as gender or beauty. But, when integrated into the fantastic mind-worlds of children, they can become safe receptacles for their otherwise private and inexpressible impulses. As a child, I remember taking a mid-sized doll under my bunk bed and pressing my lips very hard to hers. Interactive but encouraging radical invention over knowledge or skill, they are key players in, and often inducers of, the exploratory narratives that guide our adolescent fantasy worlds. And for those of us who don’t really want to grow up, then is still very much as now.

Judging by the lovingly Hot Topic-inspired aesthetic of S.A Mayer’s aforementioned album artwork, this EP’s fantasy sphere skews toward the gothic, emo, nightmarish, and other similarly brooding atmospheres. But whatever gloom the producer honors here does not intend to wallow in its own shadow and instead alights with the spiritedness of a player in the process of conquering an obstacle-ridden quest.

In Swan Meat’s playhouse, I imagine toys mingling with many wires connected to computers and gaming consoles. Where toys are more metaphorical touch points, gaming tropes and themes are abstracted into sonic motifs throughout Tame. The EP feels like the producer’s most cohesive expression since 2016’s excellent Bounty EP, which explored deconstructed, arrhythmic dark techno realms. While those terms can still be applied to these tracks, Tame swerves into the realm of dark fantasy without feeling like a purely mimetic OST.

The producer’s by-now signature crashing drums and stacked arrangements of noisy fragments join waves of theatrical, MIDI strings, sprinklings of 8-bit-inspired synths, and what she calls “a common sonic milieu that calls to mind early PS1 boss battles without feeling super obvious or referential.” She cites games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Don’t Starve as influences for these songs, especially the plucky “Flying Ants Waltz,” which rush at you, suddenly, like two magnets drawn into each other’s force fields. They snap against your back, bow-and-arrow style, or your hip, sword-like, with as much crisp force as the “bombastic, cinematic taiko hits” that clap throughout the release. A “repeated vocaloid voice,” which first appears on “Lullabye” and later on “Lisp,” haunts like a potentially helpful, potentially harmful spirit, as it sings, for example, “I feel sick for so long/ I search for help/ But the lullaby plays on.”

Affected vocals also appear in many other tracks, such as in the wonky, theatrical opener “Tearz Intro,” where a cartoonish voice repeats “I’m in love” against lampooning fizzes and pops. “Alucard” is full of the vague whispers of what I imagine to be a guiding force somewhere along the way, which in the end forcefully impels, “Hold your breath, I hear stars weeping.” Enormous clues whispered into wayward ears. Throughout, Tame reminds us to hold onto our fantasies — they’re telling us something.

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