Swapping guitars and drums for VSTs and sequencers, Mental D-Struction makes the tricky jump to electronica and almost pulls it off.
Having high artistic ideals, and creating material which follows them is laudable and to be encouraged. Where problems arise is at the point of exhibition. Where the goal is to adhere strictly to an artistic ideal, and that ideal is self-expression (or expression of a vision so personal that it amounts to the same thing) it opens up a whole series of ethical concerns when that material is distributed to the public. All of a sudden we move from a benign exercise in self-analysis, to a narcissistic and exclusory act of artistic masturbation. Because it is so easy to create electronic music in 2011, the series of questions a musician needs to ask his or herself before taking the material and financial commitment to distribute their work often don’t get asked. Those questions include but are not limited to: is this good enough to ask people to engage with? Does this work have anything to say? If this is self-expression, why exactly do I wish for other people to hear it? There is the nagging feeling with Extrapolation of Human Perspectives that the last of those questions has not been fully addressed. New technology has thrown sonic artists into a transitional period where the ability to create is fast outpacing the individual’s ability to decide whether or not s/he should do so.
Those questions include but are not limited to: is this good enough to ask people to engage with? Does this work have anything to say? If this is self-expression, why exactly do I wish for other people to hear it?
For many digital natives the act of making every aspect of their lives publicly available is so natural as not to merit debate. The inanity of FaceBook live feeds is testament to the urge. Photos of this morning’s breakfast cereal choice are posted long before any exploration of whether there is any social responsibility to doing so. If people don’t want to see breakfast cereal, the argument goes, there’s no-one forcing them to look at the pictures. But that argument falls apart when applied to the distribution of music, dance, theatre, literature or any other genre of artistic creation which claims the title.
Declaring a work to be a piece of art, (whether or not the declaration is made overtly is irrelevant here – by sending the album to Trebuchet to be reviewed, that declaration is implicit) demands that an audience be taken into account. The argument that those who wish to abstain from engaging with the artwork in question is entirely moot – the artwork must be considered in relation to an imaginary audience because, unlike the FaceBook profile pic of a bowl of Coco Pops, Mental D-Struction’s album is deliberately launched into the public domain. The anonymity of digital distribution, the almost reflex-action in present-day creators to distribute their work as soon as it is deemed complete, makes it easy to forget that there is a responsibility in all artistic endeavour to audience – a payback for the time and effort spent in viewing, or reading, or listening to the work.
For many digital natives the act of making every aspect of their lives publicly available is so natural as not to merit debate.
Evelyne Manganese, a woman with many musical projects, started out as a bassplayer with a grindcore/death metal band. It shows. So, unfortunately, do many of the predictable pitfalls of musicians who make similar transitions in musical media. Chuck a USB stick into a crowd of metal bands and you’ll likely hit one who is working on an electronica project. It rarely pans out well though. The John Frusciante/Venetian Snares collaboration Speed Dealer Moms stands out as an exception to the rule, but most commonly, the glee at having tools which cut out the tedious and restrictive hassles of getting a full band playing in time together are so liberating to the musicians that they forget that there is a long history of electronic music out there. More than that, it has evolved far beyond the mere practise of replacing guitar, bass and drums with VSTs which correspond to the same sound frequencies and roles.
Mental D-Struction is an act capable of great manipulations, of dramatic sonics, of great manipulations of tension and emotion, but it is utterly without precision or technique given the huge box of tricks available to electronic musicians. The listener is forced to share in the learning process as Manganese muddles her way through the effects box, and struggles to pick out the central theme of each song through the overbearing layering of effects, beats, vsts, samples and loops. What Mental D-Struction needs is practise, restraint, and most of all, time. Her laid-back attitude to audience (the album seems to be purely for the benefit of a small and dedicated subset of extreme electro-grindcore-breakcore-industrial-noise aficionados, for whom the mere arrival of new material to the genre will be enough to garner acceptance and appreciation) affects quality control, and there is an unforgivable laziness in much of the album which would not be so galling if her compositional ambition was not so obviously worthy of better treatment. It’s a cliché, but it is apt: could do better.
utterly without precision or technique given the huge box of tricks available to electronic musicians
Knowing that your music will only really be heard by a small group of appreciative fans allows a really seductive immediacy to the music, but it also gives a clunking, unfinished aspect. There’s just too much reliance on sound effects and samples which just don’t integrate as fully into the composition as they should. That disjointedness could just as easily be excused by the artist as being deliberate – as an acknowledgement of the electronic techniques in this sort of assembly-composition. That argument is no consolation to a listener subjected to fourteen songs in which Samuel Barber-style string motifs battle to be heard through broken blastbeat fills and a thoroughly overused sound effect that sounds like a sci-fi blockbuster laser cannon. Stepping back from all commercial concerns of marketability, of making a record that people may feel compelled to buy, is potentially a liberating experience. But there is the danger that the project becomes so personal that it is narcissistic and ego-feeding. In fact, in an interview with Extreme Sound Forum in July 2010, Manganese states that she makes music as ‘a type of personal therapy’. What needs to be decided, is to what extent can an audience really be expected to act as unpaid therapist to artists? It’s the ‘let me tell you about this crazy dream I had’ effect again, or the ubiquitous art-student’s naïve cry of ‘I just want to express myself’. Fine, pet, perhaps you just go off and do that whilst the real artists get to work on interpreting our society, hmmm?
There’s just too much reliance on sound effects and samples which just don’t integrate as fully into the composition as they should.
The album is confident and brash to the point of megalomania, with an overt theme running though. Thematic linkage though, doesn’t excuse the sheer sameness of fourteen tracks with very little to distinguish one from the next. It is cinematic, dystopian, industrial, futuristic, with an implied man-versus-machine symbolism to the sonic battle between analogue voices (violin, string quartet, vocal samples, drumfills) and the digital effects (including those damned laser cannons). By the end of the album, the effort of will needed to engage with the over-painted drama of the music just becomes too much to sustain, and a sort of compassion fatigue sets in. It’s sonically impressive and dense, but so rich that it’s easier just to allow it to wash over in waves of undetailed blur.
Why then, is this review taking so long? Surely the album could have been dismissed in a quarter of the space? It certainly could, but that would deny the fact that there is something very compelling about the music. As an album, it really doesn’t work, as individual tracks though, there are some standouts.
Edge of Depressed displays competing motifs – a pretty and fragile top-end, a mid-range synth development that is a bit more threatening, industrialised overdubs which attack and sometimes completely overwhelm it. The narrative progression of the track comes mainly through the percussion beats, and the percussively-sequenced sound effects. Those effects are not always as sharp or shiny as they should be, but it becomes a lesser concern to the dramatic, cinematic interplay between the battling elements. It is harrowing, but compulsive.
Arbeit Macht Frei brings those damned laser cannons back again. Once you realise that it’s another case of choral/string/chord motif, layered with underbeat, with the whole lot bashing together for a central mega-build, it actually gets a bit tedious. But then the beats drop out momentarily, showing some of the restraint that the album usually lacks. It works beautifully.
On Perve Verse, there is a hesitant piano phrase to start, which intrigues through the onslaught of grindcore beats and breaks. It’s somewhat marred by a heavy-handed choral loop which gives a pastiche horror-film effect. By this stage in the album the ear searches out the piano motif when it recurs, simply ‘listening through’ the foreground beats and techno gravy. Which it doesn’t deserve, because it’s not a particularly well-realised piece of piano, nor is the choral loop great. The technique of creating this perceived human/machine battle is actually according more critical weight to the human parts than they merit, but then, just to feel such reactions shows that something in the composition is working.
In summary: some worthy ambitions, occasionally realized, but often marred by shock-theatre tendencies and an artist overwhelmed by her tools.