Electronic music has often been called upon, if not expected to, create soundtracks for futuristic scenarios and technologies.
Yet this new project from veteran New York techno producer Adam X shows how it well it can soundtrack planned futures that never were. Best known in recent years for his highly successful Traversable Wormhole project, Adam X also runs the Sonic Groove Experiments label, revived for this project. Although the ADMX-71 alias is designed to showcase his more atmospheric output, this doesn’t mean there aren’t some highly effective dancefloor-oriented tracks on this imaginative release.
An electronic album inspired by the much-mythologised New York underground system is already a strong concept, but the twist here is that this album is dedicated to a planned but unbuilt “Second System” that would have added another 200 miles of track to the system known today. What the track titles actually allude to are the leftover preparatory works for this massive programme: constructed but never-used stations, or tunnels that lead nowhere.
Knowing this helps explain the ghostly, icy nature of many of these tracks. Trains have only ever run along these tunnels via these soundscapes. It’s even more eerie to think that the physical structures this album is inspired by date from the late 1930s, and that they’re being sonically re-animated by early 21st Century technology. However, Adam X carefully avoids the temptations of producing either a hauntological or an over-literal sonic description of this ghost network.
It would have been easy to produce tracks in the style of Kraftwerk‘s ‘Trans Europe Express’ or FUSE‘s ‘Train Tracs’ and just leave it at that, but the ADMX-71 methodology is more subtle, updating established electronic train motifs with subtle (but never overdone) atmospherics.
‘Future expansion’ is reminiscent of ‘City Wakes Up’ from Biosphere‘s soundtrack to Man with a Movie Camera. It’s instantly clear how spacious and well-balanced the mix is and the sonar-like blips echoing in an imagined tunnel, offset by ethereal chords, make it a great scene-setter. The pace increases with ‘Provisions’, which still feels like a process getting underway but it’s animated by increasingly urgent electronic zaps. Moving forward onto ‘The Winfield Spur’ the atmosphere becomes more dubby, and an insistent pulse emerges, increasing the sense of gradual acceleration.
‘South 4ST Connection’ is the turning point where the pace increases, accompanied by a nagging sound like a component trying to veer away from the acclearing mechanism. The colder textures again recall Biosphere but the scattered train-like sounds, are also reminiscent of Chris Watson‘s railway-derived 2011 release El Tren Fantasma.
Passing at greater speed through abandoned ‘Shell Stations’ the album enters fully linear mode for the first time. The track is strict and tensely propulsive, subtly creating a sense of other trains passing nearby. The album reaches its peak at the ‘Bell Mouth’, building on and intensifying the momentum of the previous tracks. Its progress is marked out by a insistently cycling corroded electronic pulse accompanied by increasingly powerful percussion that should wreak devastation played on a big system. It’s one of the most mimetic of these Subway-inspired tracks but again avoids the trap of being over-literal, sustaining the illusion of a 21st-century sound train running on a late 1930s network.
From here on there’s a gradual deceleration and a detour through the more atmospheric parts of the system as on the anthemic ‘Elevated Dreams’. ‘Second System’ itself is returns to the dubbier textures but with a chilly atmosphere of icier keyboard sounds hinting at darker territories.
The penultimate track ‘Subway Inertia’ is epic, slow and graceful, again marked out by the imagined sound of distant trains. Calling the hazily atmospheric closing track ‘Nine Decades Later’ is a strong statement that reinforces the album’s concept. Here again, the similarity with the bleakly anthemic textures of Biosphere’s 1991 album Microgravity is inescapable and the use of these icier elements is part of this conceptually- and sonically-rich album’s distinctiveness.
The fact that it’s easy to re-imagine this as the soundtrack to a documentary looking back at a real Second System that was actually built proves just how successfully the album animates and communicates this parallel history.
ADMX-71 “Second System”
2×12″LP/ CD SGX LP01/ SGX CD01
Sonic Groove Experiments