For us, the relatively privileged, the appeal of the future now is iterative consumer technology and nothing else. Our simplest, most achievable visions of the future are usually dreams of services rather than conditions: the proto iPad in Inspector Gadget. William Gibson’s Cyberspace. Star Trek’s anticipation of the mobile phone. We learn from science fiction that, while consuming may get better, the world itself will probably get worse. The world in Zamaytin’s We may be impressive (modular bedrooms, sex with anyone!), and you may not be left wanting for much, but it’s an oppressive Commie nightmare all the same. Similarly, Dick, Haldeman, Bester and many others give us great tools in horrible worlds.
For the most part this holds true. Tools – objects, technology, gadgets – can only get better. Conditions – owning a house, having a safety net, living with a semblance of ethical comfort (not to mention those on the rough end of that ethical dilemma) – can only get worse. Yet we don’t see these current trajectories – the rise-and-rise of neoliberalism, the stripping of government and public services, the unaccountability of corporate criminals – as a dystopian future, yet at one point they were. We’re natives here: this happened slowly enough for the shock to not register. This is just the way it is, and besides, aside from objects and their iterative improvement, what actually constitutes an imagined future in 2013? Do we still imagine?
Brisbane duo Multiple Man make dark music, yes, but the darkness they conjure is more of an objective truth than a sensation you will feel. This debut cassette is stylistically adept: sunk, bass-oriented synth lines oscillate amid charcoal guitar distortion. Monotone vocals surface with the lurid haziness of a chewed VHS tape. Cabaret Voltaire, The Screamers and Chrome all come immediately to mind, if you know them. If you don’t, you’re probably more likely to imagine the techno action films you watched in the ‘80s: Videodrome, The Running Man, Escape From New York.
There’s no escaping the dead end of reminiscence. So instead, it’s better to ask why Multiple Man doesn’t sound as nasty as it probably should, or wants to. The reason for that, I’d suggest, is because there’s nothing especially alien nor bracing about these sonic decisions. It sounds antiquated, like a menace we’ve already shot down, picked apart and created names for. Multiple Man comes with no mythology and no reason to wonder. It’s purely what it is: a practice in style. Why they selected this style isn’t explained, as the elements that might signpost the fact that this was recorded in 2013 – lyrics, subtle sonic developments or fingerprints that are this duo’s own – are obscured by an embrace of reverb and griminess. They probably do it because they like it, which is fair enough.
This tape is enjoyable, even brilliant in terms of execution, but it’s hard to be invested emotionally in this music. Not everyone will necessarily want that, but I do – very much so. This particular strain of ye olde synth punk is so intrinsically linked to dreaded past imaginings of a future – the spiritual dysphoria and techno-fear of New Wave sci-fi; the ensuing popular culture that fed off it – that in 2013 it just sounds like an affectionate period piece.
Because the future is rarely imagined in terms of seismic change now, for better or worse. There’s no looming threat of forced progress. Instead we expect the opposite. In the evil empire, the futurists (Soviets) have been exchanged with luddites (Muslim extremists). The future we imagine now will be wrought by minute policy change (or lack thereof), iterative development, and the comfortable inevitability of preservation. The future Multiple Man trades in is no longer frightening. It seems innocent, and as a byproduct, you almost want it back. It’s the result of an anticipation of linearity: the technology will seize us because it can only get better and thus capable. It has, but it’s merely a distraction. Multiple Man is the future as past-tense, a remembrance of its potency. Linearity be damned.
Repetition is the Key
Gardland’s debut EP has a better hand in the spook stakes. The Sydney duo’s whitewashed minimal techno is one that’s frequently conflated with notions of ‘the future,’ and has been ever since production units like Berlin’s Basic Channel birthed this strand of minimal in the early ‘90s, three years after the Wall fell and thus, the end of a great threat.
Gardland’s template is as well laid as Multiple Man’s is, but the former duo have it easier. Their music isn’t comprised of gestures. There’s nothing vaguely didactic or persuasive about it. Gardland’s music is neutral: these 4/4s and oscillations can’t be challenged, because more than anything they resemble systems. Cold, non-sentient systems processing interminably. Gardland doesn’t explicitly ask you to feel anything: this music depicts a state, or a reflection of a state, of being. These sounds are reined by numbers and movement. It’s exacting, precise, unforgiving of error.
And yes, it’s a template of 20 years’ vintage, but it still feels epochal. It doesn’t deliver epochal sentiments like a modern chart pop artist might, but instead charts the ambiance of our condition. During the EP’s second track, ‘1767’, the record’s sole vocal passage emerges in the form of a neutral, female spoken word. These words stand out:
“Repetition is the key. We take it as a given that tomorrow the sun will rise in the morning, and we have no reason to doubt it.”
Amid a passive and unchanging surface of functional 4/4, these words are basically a manifesto for Gardland. Because this is eternity: this empty grey vortex of space, punctured by a steady immutable pulse, permits no development nor fresh permutation worth speaking of. Gardland’s music speaks of a condition where big change is neither dreamed nor expected. Gardland is what happens when there’s no New World Order to fear. If Multiple Man is tapping into an extinct fear, then Gardland live in the ensuing reality and strive to depict it.
It’s gauche to conflate electronic music with ‘the future’ in 2013, but Multiple Man and Gardland are both borne of lineages that prize that association. It’s unlikely that either will penetrate the mainstream in Australia, nor even the sub-mainstream of community radio rotation or alternative print and online coverage. These audio dreamings are not hot currency. Best we lick our wounds to the sepia tones of blue blooded indie rock or affirmative, rags-to-riches Australian hip-hop.
And maybe that’s not so bad: maybe that’s the closest music can get to depicting what our condition manifests: the fact that we want and need music that makes us feel better. Maybe even our angry, demonstrative music need only be a catharsis, a placeholder for real rage, a place to withdraw to. No hardcore fan is going to burn a building to the ground. Rappers espousing rote liberal sentiments in Australia often appeal to the Southern Cross set. Many describe popular rock music as an adjunct to lifestyle – a simple marker of identity – but that in itself is a pursuit of some comfort, of camaraderie.
But that’s what distinguishes Multiple Man and Gardland, even while neither sound anything like the other. One is a fear and the other is what is, or should have been, feared. One has come to pass, the other is right now. There are no boyfriends or girlfriends, no growing up, no getting a job, no dead fathers or mothers, no butterflies in stomachs, no inchoate rage, no burgeoning nor bloomed sexuality, no incendiary politics or chest beating manifestos. They’re just states. One is old, the other is now. Before and after. But what’s next, if anything.