Last year, speculative architect Liam Young created three panoramic animations depicting vast dystopian cityscapes. Young attempted to explore the relationship between technological change and the architecture of our cities. In one of his animations entitled “Edgelands”, he envisioned huge city like structures that house all of our private data. They are the tangible product of our online selves. In his vision these places were owned by one company, in this case Samsung.
There is a clear parallel to be drawn between Young’s work and this new album by Hyperdub artist DVA. Like Young, DVA imagines a dismal, dystopian future. The album is set at some unidentified time in the future where a grandiose corporation named H:E / Hi:Emotions has designs on making everyone live their lives in virtual reality under one all consuming brand. In Young’s vision the brand was Samsung but it could just as easily be this nefarious H:E / Hi:Emotions.
To fit with this anti-utopian concept, much of the bouncy dance beats of DVA’s work on other people’s remixes has been replaced with more thoughtful, gloomier sounds. If you are are familiar with any of DVA’s previous work, you’ll know that he has always had a masterful understanding of space. That is certainly still evident, it’s just now the spaces are dark, full of lingering shadows in dim alleys, not unlike the cityscapes imagined by Liam Young. At times it is as if he wants to highlight the dangers lurking round the corner. Sonically, he achieves this by cleverly interrupting melodic passages with jarring sounds such as on album opener “SHUTDOWNCENTRAL”. Here, a brilliant sheen of ambient sound is punctured by jarring noise. Likewise, “SUZHOU” features suitably off-kilter keyboards coupled with displaced buzzing beats. The feeling of desperation is suddenly interrupted by unexpectedly euphoric keyboards. It suggests a person finding sanctuary online, like a drug to block out the asphyxia of the real world.
The range and depth of the music is impressive and admirable. It’s clear that DVA has spent a lot of time and energy crafting these soundscapes. At times the sheer scope of his vision is jaw dropping such as on “B IT”. Beats and keyboard lines are given the room to roam, giving the impression that it all might come apart at any moment, like a machine just before it malfunctions. “MEMORIESOFOFFLINEACTIVITY” features more of an Aphex Twin vibe with fidgety beats and pianos. It is full of spun out glitchiness but maintains its accessibility. “FD14” is built from squelchy percussion which sounds like a drum machine in the middle of a cardiac arrest. “ALMOSTU” is the most surprising song on the album with its standard song structure. It features sweet yet downbeat vocals from Roses Gabor. Although there is a pervading sense of resignation, the song acts as a sliver of light amongst the gloom.
Similarly, there are other moments where the alienating sounds are replaced with something a little more colorful. “DAFUQ” has a rousing cinematic feel with clever use of a more hip hop sounding backing. “DREAMFLIX” uses ‘80s inspired synths akin to those found on the “Stranger Things” soundtrack. DVA also cleverly intersperses the sonic collage with snippets of advertisements and announcements from the mega corporation HE. “AD1” features the clipped sound of a female voice over elegiac piano. There is even an advert for HE halfway through that provides a much needed identity for the company. This really holds the album together as a concept.
DVA is someone concerned about how people are more frequently living their lives online. The music ably echoes the confusion, the specter of all encompassing authority and the remoteness of the supposedly more connected online world. It achieves these aims with aplomb. Despite the oppressive nature of the concept and the music there is hope that things might get better. it suggests that at some point there has to be a hero. Someone to question the suffocating, restrictive systems. Think of Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984.
DVA has created a bleak and expansive yet approachable album that perfectly encapsulates our troubled relationship with technology. The meticulously layered music is often extraordinary. He is an artist operating at the peak of his powers. This is a work of real substance which demands to be heard.
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