I go walking every day, sometimes I take a photo and share it on social media. Sometimes I don’t share it on social media… when I don’t I wonder whether I actually took the walk because, like the Zen koan of a tree falling in the forest, if it is somehow not virtually witnessed then what was the utility of the walk? Well actually the walk was for exercise…I know this because my watch recorded my steps, and monitored my pulse, and the GPS told me where I’d been. I could show myself what I’d done because it became data… Sometimes I share that activity data too…
We are analogue beings in an increasingly digital world… a world where the tangible becomes increasingly intangible. But at least I can listen to this album on vinyl… right? Yeah but then I need to prove that I’ve bought it and played it by posting a fucking photo of it…. of even writing a review of it (oh dear!).
Technology is sold as a freedom… a liberating force that makes things more easy for us… and yet like the drugs we take and the excitement we crave (betting for instance) there is the constant danger that we become imprisoned by those very things that we thought emancipated us. As quoted in the press release for this album, we get caught in what sociology Max Weber called ‘the iron cage of bureaucracy’. And yet a cage suggests we can see out… our screens are not as forgiving.
’Dataland’ is a meditation on these issues, writ large by the COVID pandemic which has seen us further retreat into our cages… into our screens… unable to break free… letting the technology further define how we live. In many ways this parallel data pandemic has been a lifeline, allowing contact and humour to sear through our reciprocal exiles. Yet these interactions are not mediated by public services, but corporations looking to monetise every byte and every particle… gaining hegemony over us like air invading a vacuum. The revolution is being atomised.
…and like any sense of oppression I challenge anyone to not recognise at least part of themselves in opener ‘Lost Hours’. A 21st Century update of Iggy Pop’s ‘I’m Bored’… this is a track that, perhaps inadvertently, drives home some truths about how we spend our time… those pointless jobs, those pointless attempts at forming relationships, that pointless media, even tv shows that thrive on pointlessness. Here Stone questions the meaning of our existence in a self-deprecatory manner… the regrets of life and the fundamental lack of meaning in contemporary society. This is very much setting out the symptoms of the Dataland dystopia and really comes up with a bleak prognosis. Yet also listen to the music here too… it is really quite glorious with hypnotic beats interspersed with a glorious melody which both expand and connect to Stone’s words.
I find the title of ‘Formica Desk’ to be so evocative. Formica for me is redolent of the hope my parents had in the 70s when we had our kitchen extension with gleaming Formica work surfaces… it is for me the material of past hope… and that’s what it feels like here… a shelled-out life going through the motions heading inexorably toward what feels like a demise, perhaps a spiral into madness… certainly into the sort of emptiness and absence of meaning that we fear but maybe never want to admit to. Along with it is a downtempo soporific beat that really amplifies Stone’s words… this gradually ramps up over the length of the track and from it you can really feel the synapses frazzling and the sanity draining away in, after quite a few listens, a quite powerful manner. Oh and the line ‘writing a list of my favourite lists’… that made me laugh felt a little close to home at the same time.
After that ‘Time To Eat Again’ does not really let up in it’s bleak portrayal of the loss of individuality of life… the persistent blurring of the boundaries of the self… the fragmenting and dissolving of who we are set out in a manner that very much reminded me of some of the early work of John Cooper Clarke in the way Stone uses language to make a point… it feels like the contemporary version of kitchen sink realism for the post-individual generation. The music here is just wonderful, I love the way that it frequently soars above Stone’s monotone adding drama and beauty to the track… the arrangements are great in the way they punctuate the deliberately bland delivery.
‘Shop Soiled’ is the one track that I am not getting straight away, so I’ll start with the music, which has a real Public Image feel to it with the dub influences and right angled turns… it’s also the one that is perhaps most recognisable as a Dead Sea Apes number. I get the sense of someone drowning in their own thoughts, in their own alcoholism, in… well basically… their own consumption… that overwhelming feeling particularly if we stop and think about it too hard… that moment of existential dread when we realise exactly where we are and what our position in the grand/ fragmented scheme of ‘things’ actually is… and what those ‘things’ are. A sense of emptiness again comes to mind.
The beginning of the title track is quite Kraftwerkian in tone… it feels like we are not so much on the ‘Autobahn’ but the hyperreal information superhighway…. instead of being at the wheel of a VW Beetle we are a data packet flying through fibre cable with no real understanding or purpose. The absence of meaning is one of the key ideas that I take from this album, something that is writ large here with a clarity of both words and music… you can feel the avarice and desire for more and more… at what point does it disappear under its own virtual weight is the question it poses for me?
The final track ‘Empty Streets’ returns to the vibe of The first Stone/ Dead Sea Apes collaboration ‘2039’ which still gives me the heebie jeebies… Here the soundtrack to this album is at its most dystopian as we get taken through the ultimate loss of self and meaning within a data driven world… the individual spat out by the machine. What it particularly striking here is that this is not a take over of the machines like some grand science fiction film where the robots rise and take us over… here we just get excreted from the data stream and are essentially dead to society. We can go on walks, but we can’t post about it… we can play our records, but no one knows… we can only barter because we are dead to anything data-driven… we are living in the Zen koan… but perhaps that is the emptiness that Zen espouses… perhaps the exile is also the escape? Maybe we just need to rediscover our inner analogue.
This is an absolutely terrific album that sets the mind thinking, and does have the ability to push you over into a slough of despondency if you’re not careful. While I have broadly concentrated on Stone’s lyrics and vocals here, this is a truly collaborative effort with the Dead Sea Apes once again providing a strikingly symbiotic framework for them. This data-driven, and lockdown data-sharing, album is further enhanced however by the the electronics of Black Tempest, who adds a layer of synthesised sound to the set giving it it’s ‘sheen of data’ which deepens the relationship between the words, music and subject matter.
Finally I recognised a lot of myself in this album. I found this to be at the same time comforting and frightening… as I said above it makes me think of emptiness… but emptiness can be good and bad… the bad form of emptiness can also be exacerbated by over-stimulation and the need to fill our time… there’s a balance to be had somewhere, this at least tells us about the imbalances.
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