Gazelle Twin's Unflesh is as immaculate as a hotel in a JG Ballard novel, and just as bloody scary.
Gazelle Twin’s Elizabeth Bernholz spoke recently in an interview about her creative approach. She described how, following a personal crisis, she decided to “blank canvas” her entire approach to making music. On her debut album, The Entire City, we saw this comprehensive thinking realized. On Unflesh, her second, Bernholz’s blank canvas thinking (more grey-sky than blue-sky) is realized in a series of tracks that seem more tightly bound, even vacuum-packed. This effect is a result of the production, which removes any organic quality to an instrument or vocal. Combined with the impact of the whispered vocals this lends an air of claustrophobia to the album.
Unflesh is in essence a post-Kid A album, an extended critique of postmodern living. Kid A took everyday sayings (“The big fish eat the little ones”, “you’re living in a fantasy world”) and by repeating them imbued them with a sense of importance. Within the context of the modern, electronic music the lyrics were used in, the album thereby reflected unsettling aspects of the modern world. The context of the ‘modern world’ was offered by the music, influenced as it was by Aphex Twin and Autechre.
Unflesh seemingly shares these influences, with Bernholz also using common phrases (“I’ll beat them all at their own game”) and by repeating them against electronic accompaniment she also puts across a wider critique of the modern world. In fact what makes Unflesh 2014’s version of Kid A thematically is how the album reminds illuminates the fact that since the year 2000 our concerns surrounding technology have diversified. If Thom Yorke, with Kid A, used his concerns at the first human clone as an emotional theme for the album, here Bernholz expands these worries to make them fit the present day. For instance, she has spoken of how “Belly of the Beast” describes a revenge fantasy, in which animals rendered as dead meat in a supermarket come alive to wreak havoc. On both albums doubts about technology, particularly with regards to the suppression of natural processes, are portrayed musically.
Elsewhere on this record Gazelle Twin’s musicianship explores new ground. “Guts” starts with the sort of riff Prince might be proud of, and “Premonition” is built on the kind of airy, expansive synths that evoke her former collaborator, John Foxx. Bernholz’s vocal palette has expanded too, with her voice evoking (during long notes that act as compositional solvent) Bjork. There is a sense of mastery to these tracks, a sense of great detail in the performance and production. Both sound as it they were not improvised, but were well-rehearsed. Consequently each song carries with it the impression sense that every impact it has upon you is intentional.
This is, without a doubt, a manifesto of an album. From the supermarket bleeps of “Belly of the Beast”, to the incessant five-note thrum of “Anti Body”, Gazelle Twin is offering critiques of capitalism, a system of living which is not only buckling under scrutiny, but which is now overrun with maggots. In a comprehensive interview with PopMatters, Bernholz talked of how the supermarket bleeps were included to allow her to musically explore the way supermarkets are a “microcosm of capitalism -- all the really bad shit under one roof”. In “Belly of the Beast”, the subterranean vocals evoke Tricky; it’s the sound of an urban observer cursing under their breath as they survey a decaying metropolis. “Bite the hands and the fingers that feed,” Bernholz intones. Crunching beats evoke a destruction that was visualised in the supermarket-wrecking video that accompanied the songs release.
The theme of “the subterranean” is a motif that runs throughout, with the video to “Anti Body” portraying an underground, liminal space in which a hooded, disturbed figure at once commands and is commanded by an abandoned school shower room. The track unearths Bernholz’s past demons regarding the Body Dysmorphic Disorder she suffered as a teenager. She described to me how she “trace(s) many things back to that time and place where I felt at my most anxious.” The source of her anxiety was, she realised, the school changing room. The video recreates that emotional time, exorcising its pain in art. It also evokes a dystopia that we recognise as chillingly prescient.
The tracks on Unflesh are, perhaps unsurprisingly, most effective when they are also explored visually with an accompanying video. The visual form allows the sense of foreboding and the power of the music to be fully expressed. When it is, the album acts as an effective metaphor for a world in which the forces of commercialism make the individual look inwards, and create private strategies for survival. Just as Bernholz did when she conceived her artistic approach. This album, with its pristine interiors, captures the intimacy of her trauma perfectly. It’s as immaculate as a hotel in a JG Ballard novel, and just as bloody scary.