Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Ethical Governor: An (un)timely payload

There’s always a lag between the completion of an album and its release. Sometimes this can lead to uncanny resonances with events. Ethical Governor’s “payload” dropped just as the Coronavirus crisis escalated and the resultant shockwave began to hit the “global economy”. Even if the release itself weren’t knowingly dystopian, the context in which it is appeared certainly was. Listeners to darker strands of techno and other genres with a bleak worldview will know that sonic dystopias can sometimes be oddly uplifting. Whether this effect holds true throughout 2020 is an open question and how much appetite there’ll be for darkness in the aftermath of what’s to come is an open question.

Meanwhile, Ethical Governor (Tony McMurray) has aimed to to transmit “a story of dystopian mayhem” that’s already becoming overshadowed by real stories of dystopian mayhem. I’d assumed the name was sarcastic but it had a precedent several years ago in this video which ironically argued for government by drone:

Interestingly, this album doesn’t feel like a cartoonish doom fest or an unreflective wallowing in others’ misery (bearing in mind of course the difference between being able to make or dance to techno about such grim scenarios and being at their mercy). The artwork features a military drone of the type constantly in the air over conflict zones. Of course, drone warfare is hardly “news” now, it’s a banal, routine part of 21st century life. Work like this can no longer function as a warning. It might function as an awareness raiser, but only as a brief explosion on the grainy screen of our infosphere.  Sound artists have already documented the sounds of military drones and made compositions from them so incorporating such dystopian military-political reality into techno is not so provocative. It’s a path Vatican Shadow and others been following for some time and which Black Lung has followed faithfully for more than a quarter of a century. 

This is a moment when the virus is presented as a side-effect of a proxy war between America and China and governments openly debate what proportions of their populations “should” be allowed to become infected or to die. Catastrophe is (literally) in the air now in a way that makes the supposedly clinical techniques of drone warfare seem quaint. All of which means that right now, a dystopian-themed release is unlikely to be able to match reality as we gaze into the abyss on our phones. 

Having said that, Unmanned Autonomous Force is - to coin a phrase - well-targeted and slightly clinical, rather than gratuitously spectacular. “Ethical Governor” sets the scene with an edgy, nervous soundscape that feels both like a nagging reminder and an ominous promise. “Active Shooter” next escalates into a dance floor track with a strong trace of Belgian hardcore techno. The overall effect is to suggest dancing on the edge of an abyss, which is precisely what thousands did week in, week out (until the clubs began to close due to the coronavirus).

Slower tracks such as “Decomp Floater” are the most menacing and memorable here. It takes its time in building an atmosphere of mechanical menace, haunted by strange cries. From here there’s an abrupt acceleration to “Invasive Species” - a lean, mean dance floor track populated with machinic/alien chatter. 

Sometimes the scenarios the tracks may be depicting are hinted at obliquely but in other cases the intention is clearer. Either way, the tracks are effective springboards for the dystopian imagination (for those who still wish to indulge this tendency even now). The sinisterly looping “Do You See” is evocative and menacing, yet oddly pensive, almost an invitation to reflect.

While this might have seemed like a natural ominous closer, the album actually concludes jarringly with “Final Age”. This is a much tenser and faster dance floor payload delivered on target. The message (if there is one) could almost be taken as keep on partying while the world burns (if you can find a club that’s open). There are worse ways to go.

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