One-woman twisted synth-pop sorceress Planningtorock is probably best known for last year’s suitably mind-bending collaboration with the Knife—the Darwin electropera Tomorrow, A Year—and from the first notes of her second album W it’s apparent that the pairing on that record was anything but coincidental. “Doorway”, the churning entrance to this effort, sports a stirring synth pulse remarkably similar to that on Fever Ray’s mission statement “If I Had a Heart”, and like Karin Dreijer-Andersson, Janine Rostron plays a cat-and-mouse game with identity and gender, mechanically twisting her voice into a variously guttural, whining, sinister or absurdly embellished instrument. The ‘W’ of the title isn’t that ‘W’, rather it serves as confirmation of Rostron’s fascination with multi-faceted musical identity. “I’ve always liked the letter W because when you say it you’re saying ‘double U… it’s like two of you,” Rostron reveals, but in truth Planningtorock contains multitudes to such an extent on W that the album never really stops feeling elusive. That said, whichever skin Planningtorock happens to have slipped into, the results are invariably compelling.
Planningtorock, she is called, but that seems itself a wry joke. Rostron may plan to rock, but she is distracted on the way every time. Instead, this collection of songs draws on a palette of subterranean waves, baroque orchestral synth shards and gloomy Bladerunneresque android jazz. Each song represents a shift of mood and perspective: “Going Wrong” has the feeling of a tense excerpt from some dark piece of musical theatre, the soaring instrumental “Black Thumber” reverberates with the disconcerting slap of sluicing water, and a pulsing shortened take on Arthur Russell’s melancholy folk ditty “Janine” seems to have been chosen precisely to address the ‘double U’ nature of Janine Rostron’s personality. “You know I’m your friend,” she assures herself in a distorted wail, whilst “I’m Yr Man” fades out with a passable Axl Rose performing a similar trick: “Hey me, I’m the right man for you.” She might not get around to rocking, but that doesn’t mean that this is wilfully obscure stuff either. Most of these tracks sport an odd but catchy refrain, and the best is saved till last: “#9” (itself another letter to the self – JaNINE) makes for a spine-tinglingly, boldly grand closer.
As befits an album that thrives off emotional ambiguity, there is a good deal of sardonic humour here too. “I’ll pour you a cup of tea / We’ll share our love for music / While I lick you clean,” she offers out of the blue on “I’m Yr Man”. “Living It Out” slaps bluesy pronouncements over a funky disco beat, and Rostron’s constant vocal gender games are as playful as they are suggestive. Primarily, though, Planningtorock has set out to make an album that asks numerous questions of herself, but refuses to directly provide any of the answers. It’s personal perhaps, but you certainly don’t come away knowing more about Rostron than you did before. That, though, would seem to be the point. These are questions that don’t have answers. Hell, we’re not even sure what most of the questions are.
Manifesto” is like a slice of dub-infused Roxy Music that finds a multitracked Rostron offering the curled-lip pronouncement that whilst she is “a believer of secular love”, this constitutes a “manifesto of uncertainty”, a phrase which would seem to sum up W‘s central dilemma. This lyrical confusion with the predicament of living in a fractured modern reality free from the certainties of religion that leaves even personal identity uncertain is mirrored in the often disorientating twists of their electronic backdrop. It is a woozy world that Planningtorock inhabits—full of chilly strings and disembodied voices echoing from the ether—and by the time the sluggishly lopsided “Milky Blau” puts being unsettlingly off-key at centre stage, as if the very song is giving up and shutting down, or succumbing to anaesthetic, W is both alluring and deeply confusing. This record doesn’t so much grow on you as replicate the effect of that fungus that infiltrates the brains of ants to turn them into maddened zombies. Sink into W and your perception of reality will undergo a gradual shift until the music’s twisted noir underbelly seems appropriate, if impenetrable. Then your head will fall off.
Planningtorock’s live shows are a shadowy assault of masked and costumed writhing that more than anything provoke a response (italicise any of the words and the meaning remains appropriate) of “who is this woman?” Whilst drawing on avowedly personal material W ultimately invites similar bewilderment, but whilst you might not get Planningtorock this is nonetheless an album that doggedly works, whoever it is that has made it. On “The One” Rostron’s voice, twitched to a high-pitch, proclaims “I know the void, the void knows me.” At least somebody does.