A Journal Of The Dark Arts
½ artful synthpop, ½ neoclassical ambient synth, Peter Zirbs’ first solo record speaks to the promise and potential perils of a virtual existence.
A girl stands at an arcade machine, her eyes fixed on the glowing screen with her back turned on the world. She seems to be alone, somehow lost and yet at one with herself. The cover art (by Carmen Alt-Chaplin) for Peter Zirbs‘ debut album as a solo artist conveys escapism – being totally immersed in another reality, in the virtual world. His equally futuristic and retro-futuristic aesthetic is permeated with melancholy. What if we really don’t exist?.
Chaplin’s cover art, as mentioned in the Rough Trade write-up, should exude joy, possibility, innocence, adventure. It’s just a young girl in a Japanese arcade. Yet the light is bruised, sullen, moody. It looks like it could be an arcade in a dying shopping mall, dingy and echoing with memories of the laughter of children.
It’s an apt visual analogy for the two faces of What If We Don’t Exist? On one hand, it’s a bright, shiny, exciting electronic record, bristling with glorious, epic synthesizers, mighty drum machines, and futurist Synth-Pop vocals. Its other face, however, is much more shadowy and subdued, making it difficult to place where the ennui is coming from.
“Beneath This Roof (ft. Tom Walkden),” with its endless J. Alfred Prufrock references, strikes right at the heart of this dichotomy. Like Prufrock, “Beneath This Roof” transforms the fantastical, innocent imagery into a surreal and emotional reflection on the passage of time. It’s a nearly New Wave take on the disappointment of hearing those Mermaids singing and knowing its not for thee.
“Let’s Fail” does something similar, with its computerized vocals and detuned bass. “I wish I could ride a horse/but I can’t.” “I wish we could live forever/But we can’t/I wish I could change the world/But I can’t/I wish I could change myself/But I can’t.” Despite all the resignation and defeat, Zirbs asks us to keep trying, keep failing. That, perhaps, is the thing that separates us from the machines. The computerized vocals make it sound as if this were a message from the Virtual Dead, a cybernetic ghost, maybe reflecting on its life and wishing it could still affect change.
The closest and most apt sonic comparison for What If We Don’t Exist? would be David Bowie’s Low, with its mixture of futurist Synth-Pop and graceful ambient music. In Rolling Stones’ reflections on Low for their Greatest Albums of all Time roundup, author Sarah Nichols writes “David Bowie always played with alienation, or so it seems to me,” and then goes on to say “Low, as a whole, or as (to quote Eliot again) a heap of broken images, remains, forty years later, profoundly uncomfortable. Low is the work of an artist struggling to reintegrate a broken self, and by the end of it, one is unsure if the treatment has worked for Bowie, or for the listener. For me, it has a tough beauty: floating and cold, with lyrics that fade in and out like a radio signal consumed by static.”
In Bowie’s Low, the protagonist is like an astronaut walking through the bombed-out ruins of Berlin. The confluence of Human and machine in What If We Don’t Exist? suggests the same feeling but in an arcade, floating around in your escape pod in any inky blackness, disconnected and looking for connection. The puddles of illumination cast by the screens are merely candles flickering in the void, providing a little relief but no real warmth.
Despite its entirely current angst and ennui, What If We Don’t Exist? is made entirely in a retro mode, most notably the late ’70s and early ’80s. It employs the electronic techniques of that time, simple sequencing of analog machines, as a way of reclaiming some of that sense of possibility. It also adds an emotional drop shadow to the Synth Pop of that era, with the knowledge that first experiment would fail. That these futurist machines would soon be turning out Top 40 hits, same as it ever was, and that the faux-optimism powering the whole thing would gradually pull us back into a world before the World Wars, of authoritarian dictators and fascist regimes, while slowly poisoning the planet all the while.
When new music references the old, it needs to either improve upon it or totally master the style, otherwise its totally forgettable, at best. You’d be hard-pressed to find an 80s record that sounds as good as What If We Don’t Exist? The beats boom like cannon fire, while the synths are mighty as a descending mothership and just as undeniable. It brings to mind the moment when Hauntology went 80s, with a similar attention to detail blended with timeless songwriting instincts and production.
What If We Don’t Exist? Begs a question – what are you going to do about it? Even if we’re only virtual phantoms, we’ll keep dancing, keep fighting, keep loving.
What If We Don’t Exist? is out now on Fabrique Records.
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