Electronic music (particularly techno and electro) has always had a dystopian aspect to it (and for some unable to relate to it, being exposed to it can feel like a dystopian experience).
Yet although rapid technological development is bringing some ominous scenarios ever closer to a present that has turned to be more dystopian than we wanted to know, sonic dystopias often still have the glamourous, sci-fi sheen of the future. At a time when Google has moved into robotics and Amazon is planning a drone programme, there’s no need to invent fantastic future threats to create a dystopian atmosphere.
The approach taken by Donor (Brooklyn-based DJ/Producer Greg Schappert) on his first full-length album offers none of the comforts of distance. Rather than a sci-fi approach of menacing (but often ridiculous) vocoded voices and laser zaps, Schappert takes material from the present-day and brings out the dystopian aspects of a much closer and less-glamourous dystopian future. It includes field recordings from New York, skilfully processed and drenched in atmosphere. He also brings to bear strong influences from Birmingham Techno and early Dutch and Detroit Electro and even if these tracks bear no direct similarities to these forms, but deploy some of their spirit. The result is an unsparing and perceptive soundtrack for the present-day that convinces through subtlety and suspense rather than cheap melodrama.
The label claims that Donor is manifesting fears including “ … Alien invasions, civil war, post apocalyptic mayhem, call it what you will” but this is a much more subtle and sombre album than that description suggests. In sci-fi terms, this is much more Escape from New York (John Carpenter is an acknowledged influence) or The Road than Terminator or War of the Worlds. It’s the kind of nightmarish future world that doesn’t announce itself with the sudden appearance of an alien fleet, but rather creeps in, making strange and breaking down comforting illusions about the present.
‘Hands’ is a very ominous but subtle opener with harsh, grey drones circling around a helicopter-like pulse and muffled voice. Basing itself around a slow, powerful kick, ‘Calling’ is highly-detailed track full of tense, minimal details and layered percussion.
Despite the showy title, ‘Menace Is Mine’ is even more minimal (but with no release of tension). Based on a muffled, syncopated voice sample, it has a nagging edge to it that makes it half irritating, half fascinating.
Deploying layers of punitive, pummelling percussion with a strangely liquid texture, ‘Station A14’ intensifies the tense, claustrophobic, atmosphere further. There’s another clipped voice sample that might once have been a police radio report.
The first half of the album reaches a peak of tension with the outstanding ‘IP Test’. Bass drones and a sinister pulse are infiltrated by nervous acidic squelches that can’t portend anything good. The contemporary technological title suggests not an alien invasion, but the daily alienating invasion of suspect populations’ computers and privacy by governments, corporations and cyber-criminals. It’s an (anti)-ideal soundtrack to the Brave New World revealed by Edward Snowden – a malign and ceaseless probing and infiltration. It’s also a worthy successor to tracks like Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’ or Clock DVA’s ‘The Hacker’.
‘Counter’ is slower and more measured, offering the first (very slight) glimmers of hope, but the sparse drum track and harsh textures still create a sense of creeping, malevolent movement. The punchier, faster ‘Us For Them’ is almost upbeat compared to some of the other tracks, but the tone picture it paints is still not a pretty one. With its brittle beats and textures, ‘Fault Is Found’ is one of the most energetic tracks, bristling with metallic energy and threat that suggests testing procedures in a military robotics facility.
With its almost-painful flanged pulses and bleak drones, ‘Own Exile’, offers resignation rather than relief. It’s only with ‘In Your Place’ that the tension disperses and a soundtrack-like end theme emerges. Perhaps it’s the sound of the dystopian future seeping into the present. The only relief it offers is that while bleak and mournful, it suggests that the struggles the previous tracks depicted are over (if only for now) ….