In advance of Ray-Ban x Boiler Room 005: Hudson Mohawke Presents Chimes, Adam Harper deconstructs the twisted cuteness and hyper-real desire driving the music of all of our performing artists.
It could be all early twenty-first-century multimedia fantasy in a nutshell: strange, spectacular, seductive, almost compulsively so, all realised in hyper-glossy detail and twisted complexity. The essential drive is desire. Desire is the excess of satisfaction and it never ends, it just gets bigger and bigger and weirder and weirder. The music of Hudson Mohawke, Oneohtrix Point Never, Lunice, SOPHIE and A.G. Cook emulates and performs this desire to its extremes, chasing it beyond the point of delirium.
This erupting soundworld is controversial today, blasphemously flaunting its colour and excess against the monochrome lo-fi minimalism of so much electronic music and provoking accusations of infantilism and overfeeding. A decade ago, among the guitars and disco and dubstep, these lands of cute computer chaos seemed scarcely imaginable. Like coal turning into gaudy diamond under immense pressures, these musicians seem to have metamorphosed the ‘twee’ of that decade’s nu-folk and indie, as well as the wry playfulness of its gameboy grime, into the infectiously crazy grin of ‘cute’. Kitsch, you say? Oh, you mumble sweetly along to Casio and gentrify cities with cupcakes? Here’s a lavish synthesiser panorama, glittering with HD twinkle and silky vocals. You like to put a little bit of 8-bit into your dubstep? Here’s a helium hardcore extravaganza blaring with preset simulacra and convulsing towards post-human ecstasy. Be careful what you wish for.
Where has this pressure, this ever more lurid escapism come from? There’s nothing like a global economic and ecological crisis to bring on a binge. Yet to call this music merely a symptom of compulsive decadence is to miss how clever and provocative it can be. It’s less a symptom than an active acceleration, a science fiction of pure desire. It explores and stimulates new pleasures purring away in your addled modern-cave-dweller brain, returns you to a hungry world of newborn satisfactions, confusions and curiosities that it seems you never outgrew, and then, in moments of magnificent intensity, asks you what you think happiness and fulfilment could really be.
Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never have been pioneers of this feeling for years. HudMo really began to hit the underground dance community with his Polyfolk Dance EP in 2009, which exploded with sloppy hip hop and fastfwd gobbets of vocal and synth soul, all while children called out his name. Most people seemed unready ready for what came later that year – the debut album Butter was more experimental still, crawling with wiggly neon worms, percussion fireworks and daredevil keyboard tricks. HudMo soon attracted the attentions of one Kanye West, signing to his GOOD Music label and appearing on Yeezus. Looking back at the cover of Butter – noble eagles and pastel sunsets that brought out the connotations of the wild North American sublime in the name ‘Hudson Mohawke’ – one can see how like-minded the fantasy aesthetic of Yeezy’s Bound 2 video turned out to be.
Now sharing the Warp label with HudMo, Oneohtrix Point Never has tended to be seen as a more serious musician, as a minimalist synth-programmer after the 1970s stereotype. Yet there is also something quite mischievous about his work. Even on Rifts, the album-length collection that appeared in 2009, the use of synths in all their lustrous glory, away from the scare quotes of lo-fi or noise, carried a certain forbidden excitement. It was collaborating with Joel Ford on Games’s That Can We Play and Channel Pressure (as Ford and Lopatin) that really brought out something wickedly camp: Italo-style disco and yacht-synth-rock underneath wisps of heavily processed croon. And OPN – oft self-stylised as 0PN, as if to further embellish this quasi-retro digital wink and nudge – videos are always shocking. When the cheesy artifice of Ford and Lopatin’s video World of Regret hit in 2011 it felt scandalous, and in hindsight looks like a Bound 2 for the underground – again, depicting an extravagant fantasy. Yet this time it explored the desire to eat, and saw the musicians greedily consuming enormous quantities of computer-rendered food that floated in front of their faces, as if realising the dream of a three-year-old gastronome. But of course the song is called World of Regret, and before long the pair drown in heaps of excess candy, croissants and corn on the cob, and the digital simulation seems to overload, reducing Ford and Lopatin to brains with eyes and spines. A sardonic echo of critic Simon Reynolds’s criticism of Butter and similar albums as ‘glutted’ (well, it was named after a food), the video also has darker things to say about desire and its consequences, metaphorically conflating both the digital world and eating disorders as it does so. Other 0PN videos replace food with sex, such as the depressive hymn to desire and its performance that is Replica and the fetish underworlds of Still Life (Betamale), while the video for Boring Angel shrinks a whole span of human desire and destructiveness down to a tiny, glossy and undeniably cute series of emoticons.
Lately 0PN’s music has had an intriguingly wide-eyed feel, like that of an infant or artificial intelligence taking its first faltering steps in constructing and revelling in its bizarre new world. In the meantime, while fellow Glaswegian Rustie took the sparkly baton on Glass Swords, HudMo has been exploring the garish hip-hop style known as trap, especially with Lunice as TNGHT. TNGHT’s self-titled EP is just as much a twisted caricature as Butter was, again buzzing with synth orchestras and vocal homunculi, but now rooted in an almost obscene bounce. Lunice’s latest track on LuckyMe, Can’t Wait To brings trap together with twinkly e-pianos, pitched-up vocals and synthesised voices much like the ones used in OPN’s latest album R Plus Seven. HudMo’s new Chimes EP seems like a taking-stock of his varied career to date. It opens with the crazy-ostentatious big-room trap of Chimes, horns the size of a city block blasting out. King Kong Beaver fondly recalls the pizzazz of the Polyfolk / Butter years. The unearthly Brainwave is a glimpse of something relatively new for HudMo, and explores similar linear, epic structures as R Plus Seven in forging a computer heaven.
Now new artists are emerging that take cuteness to the next level. SOPHIE (all caps all the time) smashed into underground dance last year with the single Bipp / Elle, a gooey streak of liquid desire that promised “I can make you feel better” and fulfilled that promise tenfold. After several months of word of mouth concerning how blistering SOPHIE’s sets were, being continuous streams of this sort of thing in all kinds of shapes and sizes, at last more came in the form of the single Lemonade / Hard. This one more explicitly pursued its sugary-come-erotic hits, coalescing them into soft drinks, “candy boys” and fetishistic clothing items and materials in the helium lyrics, and monstrously curvy forms in the electronics. A.G. Cook is another purveyor of supersweet sonics and manages the PC Music label, which has nurtured a range of haute-cute flavours lined up in its web-based display like goodies in a candy store, including GFOTY, Danny L. Harle, Lip Gloss Twins, Dux Content, Hannah Diamond and Cook himself. Add to that the enigmatic new pop act QT and it seems there’s a new generation of cutemongers primed to conquer Planet Earth by smothering it in icing, makeup and glitter.
As well as enjoying this music in itself – intensely, almost to the point of panic – you notice symbols of enjoyment represented within it, now crushed and squeezed into so many objectives of hyperreal desire and compulsive fantasy: soul, swagger, sex, sparkle and sweetness. The underground has spent decades avoiding pop – now it’s out-popping pop, seizing its thrills and simulations and partying with them as hard as possible because tomorrow never really comes.