Just a few months into 2020, and we are well into the COVID-19 global pandemic. While we are unaware of where this no-turning-back phase will lead, listening to a conceptual album about the recent 2010s is a puzzling experience. A decade of recurring crisis that forced us to live with the constant fear of imminent disaster. The black screens in our hands have already established social distancing in our dysfunctional society. We can survive the fatal ruins of the algorithmic empire we live in, but only if we start to cooperate. This is the message captured by Flat Worms on Antarctica.
The Los Angeles-based band leave the caustic lo-fi sound of their debut album behind and play a more defined tone, as they did on previous EP Iris. Recorded in six days with Ty Segall and Steve Albini — whose influence is evident — Antarctica is a metaphor for the State of California. The icy continent is a desolate and hostile environment for human life, but the social life in the 21st-century sunny Cali is no different. Exactly like in any other country in the globalized world.
From the opening cadenced bassline and the angular guitar in “The Aughts”, and throughout the 40 minutes, Flat Worms assemble a claustrophobic sonic tunnel. A straight sound between ’90s experimental indie rock and Swell Maps’ Jane from Occupied Europe, with echoes of the late SST Records. The rhythm chases you both when it slows down and when it speeds up, like in the first single “Market Forces”. “Yeah, I’m looking for a catapult / To escape the situation / But every time I thought I got out / I’m just stepping in quicksand again.”
Will Ivy, singer and guitarist, sings the life of a lonely human being and society’s loss of empathy and identity. He is faced with a world depicted by the contrast between natural elements and oppressive concrete. The lyrics are introspective, focused on crucial fragments of everyday life with a melancholy, yet witty attitude. Take the punchline in the homonymous track “Antarctica”. “My dog is smiling as I drive her to the park / We sit together in my kitchen after dark / I ask her questions, she just barks.”
There is no shortage of social commentaries. “The quarry sparkled like a gem / An opportunity fresh to taste / Profit laced sustainable energy / A sacrificial shallow well.” With those lyrics, “Mine” is an endorsement of environmental activism, as well as a criticism of how brands appropriate rebellion values to be more likable to the masses. Or better said, to the users. The story could have a happy ending, as Ivy sings in “Via”, “If I follow the fallen’s path / I walk to my own demise / Can’t burn the history / But I can try to rebuild.”
Conceptually, Antarctica delivers an interesting point of view, although it feels a bit outdated by current events through no fault of its own. Antarctica is a solid effort but lacks the spark of originality that would make it unforgettable. Guitar riffs after guitar riffs, you won’t find a wriggle or stop yourself from asking where you heard before. Flat Worms create a unified sonic flux balanced in the raw guitar and the zappy bass.
That said, the band succeed in transforming the urgency to escape into a musical experience on Antarctica. There is no doubt that who think a record is a concept where the overall idea matters first, will love it. For the ones, however, who consider music the first language and are looking for melodies that can crawl underneath their skins, one listening will be enough. In the end, it seems like the message exceeded the medium. For an album that claims to convey such a powerful vocation, the outcome is too little.