As a confessed millennial who grew up in the era of Napster, Kazaa, Limewire, and finally iTunes, I’ve never had much of a problem with MP3s. Audio aficionados have long insisted that the digital compression of this file format creates an artificial texture inferior to the warmth and depth of vinyl, but frankly it all sounds basically the same to my ears. If ever there were a case to be made against MP3s, however, Moby’s new album would be prime evidence for the jury. Rarely have I noticed any album so obviously lacking in dynamic range — meaning, one in which the audio is compressed to the point where there is very little difference between the loudest and quietest sounds. These Systems Are Failing arrives at your ears with all the subtlety and sonic nuance of a brick wall. It would probably sound like this in any format based on the way it was produced, but when listened to as MP3s as most listeners doubtlessly will, its weaknesses are quite literally amplified.
However ill-advised, Moby may have his reasons for creating a record that sounds this way. His first release as Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, These Systems Are Failing assumes listeners are in a willfully comatose state and intends to wake them up through any means necessary to a Matrix-style reality. It is an understatement to say that Moby has always had an activist streak, but he has never sounded this desperate to communicate his message and persuade his audience.
With his latest project, he has decided that the best way to do this is to refashion his sound into a kind of futuristic electropunk. Opening track “Hey! Hey!” kicks things off in full Sonic the Hedgehog-mode, racing at warp speed through neon synths and relentless drums. It makes sense that Moby and the Void Pacific Choir would embrace futurism, as they aim to suggest that the present day has actually become quite dystopian. They want us to feel like we’re in a dark and distant future that has in fact already arrived. “We’re fighting wars in the head here / Tossed in the distant night by the airless fear / We’re fighting wars in the shadows now,” Moby sings on “Break. Doubt”. Punctuated as it is by guttural adolescent yelps, if Moby was being honest he would have again titled the song using exclamation points instead of periods. Here he adds some guitar shredding to the mix, which you’ll hear lots of in the tracks that follow. Indeed, by this point, you’ve already been exposed to most of the album’s sonic brushstrokes, and there are few surprises that follow.
Despite the attempts at futurism, the album also sounds oddly dated in places. “Don’t Leave Me”, for instance, reminds me of turn-of-the-century nü-metal types like P.O.D. Given that P.O.D. did a song for the Matrix Reloaded soundtrack, this only serves to strengthen the association of These Systems Are Failing with that particular franchise. However, the album fails to follow through providing an update on these ideas for the year 2016, when they could, in fact, have been quite relevant.
Conceptually, the album is also reminiscent of the recent TV series Mr. Robot with its critiques of globalized capitalism. Only at its best moments, though, does the album match the heart and genuine paranoia of that show. I’m thinking especially of indisputable highlight “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?”, which represents something of a shift in approach. Here Moby stops hitting the listener over the head with a two-by-four and at last makes himself vulnerable, exposing his own fears and anxieties. The poppier approach actually makes for a greater emotional impact than the aggressive electropunk found elsewhere, and for the first time, Moby convincingly conveys the sense that the walls are truly collapsing around us. For a fleeting moment, Moby sounds less like a disgruntled conspiracy theorist and more like a prophet.
Moby is a talented musician, and his latest album is filled with the skeletons of songs that might have been vital and compelling had they perhaps been produced a little differently. As an artist who has never been beholden to one particular strand of electronic music, his work here is pumped with an adrenaline and a desperation that make it a far cry from, say, the somber sparseness of 2009’s Wait For Me. While it’s refreshing to hear Moby refuse to succumb to complacency, the shallow, steely sound of These Systems Are Failing contradicts and undoes much of its rawness, making for a set that is more alienating than rousing. Only through brief glimpses is one able to perceive the dystopian present as Moby and company wish for us to see it. As a work of social activism the album is able to at least make a point, but as a work of art, it generally fails to cast the spell.