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A Journal Of The Dark Arts

Horrorscores: Umberto – Helpless Spectator album review

Helpless Spectator is Umberto’s most beautiful album to date. It’s also his most terrifying.

Umberto Helpless Spectator album review

For the last 10 years, Umberto‘s Matt Hill has been revisiting the weird, eerie world of retro soundtracks, usually of the horror variety. Starting with Unquiet Grave, Umberto was one of the first retro-revisionist sonic sorcerers to investigate the particular sub-category of horrorscores known as ‘horror synth.’ Over the span of 7 LPs and 8 EPs, Matt Hill has been exploring the blurry, VHS-dripping world of ’80s synth soundtracks, resurrecting the proto-industrial malevolence of John Carpenter and the pulsing ominous basslines of Charles Bernstein.

As time marches onward, the shimmering wall of Hauntology continues to assimilate new eras, new sounds, new technologies to hack, memories to erase and warp. Look at Stranger ThingsHawkins, Indiana; the demon-hunting sounds of Pye Corner Audio‘s Sleep Games; the sterling HD Dolby Pro psychedelia of The Advisory Circle‘s Ways of Seeing.

umberto helpless spectator album review

“The hauntological event horizon is finally starting to sneak up on the early ’90s, like it or not”; still from Chris Petit “Content”

The hauntological event horizon is finally starting to sneak up on the early ’90s, like it or not. The raw, soldering hiss of ’80s Rolands and Junos is starting to rub shoulders with the glistening digitalia of DX7’s and early digital synths. Progressive electronic acts like The Orb, Orbital, and Future Sounds of London are becoming retro, now, as well. So the sparkling clean psychedelic electronica of the early ’90s has been absorbed into the slipstream now, as well, if Helpless Spectator is any indication.

Helpless Spectator, Umberto’s first release for the mighty Thrill Jockey records, is Matt Hill’s most gorgeous work to date. You’d never know it’s inspired by an utterly terrifying concept. The name Helpless Spectator comes from Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes set out to disprove the notion that the body and consciousness are separate entities. Umberto explores this idea of being a passenger in your own experience, a ghost inside the machine, using a beguiling mixture of analog electronics and live instrumentation.

Helpless Spectator, Umberto’s first release for the mighty Thrill Jockey records, is Matt Hill’s most gorgeous work to date. You’d never know it’s inspired by an utterly terrifying concept.

For the occasion, Hill is joined by notable neoclassical composer Aaron Martin on cello and “Idaho” Joe Winslow, supplying ghostly, glimmering pedal steel guitar. Combined with Hill’s warm analog synth pads, the total effect wouldn’t sound out of place in some David Attenborough-narrated Nature documentary circa 1994. But perhaps about decaying consciousness, instead, or the final moments of a dying planet.

Helpless Spectator is a wonderful addition to a nearly flawless discography (both Umberto’s and Thrill Jockey). It’s also a sign that both Hauntology and horror synth aren’t played out, that they don’t have to be one-trick ponies. There’s so much more to investigating the past than simply saccharine nostalgia.

Helpless Spectator is out today on Thrill Jockey records

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One comment on “Horrorscores: Umberto – Helpless Spectator album review

  1. ijwilson
    July 14, 2019

    Good review! I am happy to see hauntology and horror synth talked about in the same article; the two genres have similar goals!

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