Vanishing Twin's second album, The Age of Immunology, challenges borders physical, cultural, and beyond in a remarkable musical odyssey.
The Age of Immunology
7 June 2019
Vanishing Twin come to us laden with mystery and a somewhat heavy set of accompanying concepts, some of which might need to be contextualized (or at least acknowledged) so that we can give this impressive album its due. To begin with, the band name comes from a medical syndrome involving the effective disappearance of a twin or a multiple in the uterus during pregnancy. The vanishing twin's fetal tissue is absorbed, sometimes by its other twin, its mother, or by the placenta. In this way, the miscarried twin appears to have, in effect, vanished. This name was not chosen for its random curiosity value. Band member Cathy Lucas is herself a surviving twin of this syndrome, and one can imagine that this is a significant biographical detail to live with, as well as it carries no little metaphorical freight.
Meanwhile, the album's title is taken from a 2003 book of the same name by anthropologist A. David Napier. The conceit of his book is that our concerted effort to ward off that which is not us (he calls this the "non-self") has had disastrous consequences for our civilization. For Vanishing Twin, this becomes a metaphor for our present moment, in which our previously highly developed, sophisticated, and heterogeneous culture is under threat. The press release for the album describes this condition as follows: "borders are being hardened, walls are being built and new boundaries [are] being needlessly imposed."
This sense of creeping isolation, isolationism, and othering, seem all the more poignant for a band living in England and comprised of members from Belgium, Japan, Italy, France and the US at a moment when immigration and national/ sexual/ gender/ racial identity are among the most pressing questions of our time. A band that might have been heralded only a few years ago as a leading light in the vanguard of progressive internationalism now finds itself fighting a cultural rearguard action in the face of a globally reactionary counter-insurgency against open borders, open minds, and myriad forms of self-determination. Thus, the notion of "immunology" becomes a trope for the leveraging of a fear of an extra-medical virality (Napier speaks of "anthropological inoculations") to enact an insidious cultural and political agenda.
Taken together, then, these, ahem, twinned concepts give us a lot to ponder before we even get to the substance of the album itself, and it seems that the two notions (band name and album title) are not unconnected. If one considers that Cathy Lucas herself may have physically absorbed a related "other" even before she was born, it's not hard to understand why the notions of fluidity and acceptance are rather more than deeply, not to say literally, ingrained in her DNA, and by association in that of the band themselves. That can easily be seen as an album that wears its pluralism very much on its sleeve, at least in the theoretical sense, but as we will see that pluralism also translates rather wonderfully to the sound the band makes. And so concludes the setup for consideration of this quite remarkable sequence of music.
We are told that the album draws from Krautrock, Sun Ra, and Ennio Morricone among others, and this may be true in terms of the sources that inspired The Age of Immunology, but the striking thing about hearing the album is that it seems to resist any easy generic classification, which is perhaps the key to unlocking its many charms. If we let go of any pre-conceived Balkanization of musical genres and styles from the outset, then we can perhaps liberate ourselves into the arms of what this effectively de-classified music has to offer. This forswearing of our pre-conditioned tendency toward generic classification of everything we hear allows us to enter a world without musical (and thus by association other related) borders. If we bring this loose concept or approach to the album, we have already signed on to the premises upon which the album itself is constructed.
The album opens already immersed in ethereality with "KRK (At Home in Strange Places)", a beginning that only resolves itself to the extent that you get used to it. This figurative and literal strangeness gives us another kind of twinning, as the title of the song is enacted by the mysterious mode of the song itself, which never fully resolves itself into everyday sense-making, but only into its own internal coherence. We are asked, from the outset, to give ourselves over to a paradox, to the simultaneous wonder and discomfort of being home in a strange land. This is a world to get lost in, in the sense both of being actually lost and at the same time being fully absorbed (this may be starting to sound familiar), perhaps even to find parts of yourself that you may have misplaced. Musically speaking, the song begins with some warbling and wobbling sounds in an upper register, accompanied by a lilting but insistent series of piano chords and a circular rhythmic pattern that loops everything together. Soon enough there are strings and Lucas' incantation about "strange places". It's an intoxicating blend of sounds that immediately tells us that we don't know where we are, but that we are welcome and that we will be fine.
This opening track is followed by the rather sweetly welcoming and quite brief "Wise Children", as if to conjure a community of lost souls to forge a united front in our beleaguered condition against the ranged forces we have previously identified. If you want to suspend your referential or generic disbelief only for a moment, "Wise Children" doesn't sound unlike Broadcast, and there are certainly worse touchstones.
The subsequent "Cryonic Suspension May Save Your Life" begins with what sounds like a certain kind of aural menace, with the cumulative impact of a rumbling drum and bass that is soon joined by what appears to be a bassoon or something that makes a good impression of a bassoon-like instrument. This double movement, from the utopian soundscape of "Wise Children" to the rather darker and more sinister tones of "Cryonic Suspension" offers a useful mini-sequence of oscillation between a sense of belonging and foreboding sense of its opposite. It is a form of Zeitgeist dynamic.
The polarizing roller coaster of emotions swoops upward once again with the following "You Are Not an Island", a serene and beautiful (not to mention lengthy – it's pushing eight minutes) meditational odyssey. It feels like "You Are Not an Island" is where the album first and finally begins to stretch out and breathe, where the concept and the execution are most fully synthesized and integrated, exemplified by the continual return to the lyrical mantra of "we are side by side by side". It's a reminder that we are in this together and an invocation to hold on to that important article of faith as we continue through this vale of tears. Nevertheless, the last minute of the song transitions into a disconcerting collage of vocals and sounds that seem to undermine somewhat the reassurances of community that have preceded it. The Age of Immunology is certainly no mere panacea. It requires us to commit to its weirdness in an almost cult-like fashion.
The title track is the province of bassist Susumu Mukai, known elsewhere in his artistic life as Zongamin, and also a member of the very wonderful Floating Points, who might also usefully serve as a point of orientation for Vanishing Twin. "The Age of Immunology" is a spoken word piece (each member sings or speaks their part of a given song in their native language), an aqueous and bass-driven detour that is paradoxically at the heart of the album's sequence. It's a smart move that both prepares and does not prepare us for the purple passage that is to follow.
For the sequence of songs from "Magician's Success" to "Planète Sauvage" to "Backstroke" is a spectacular interstellar trip that is worth the price of admission all by itself. "Magician's Success" comes over like a slightly toned down and yet even more spaced out Dee-Lite, as if they finally got the funds together to afford a trip to an international space station and project their crazy sound out into the galaxy. And there does indeed seem to be a whole lot of wishful thinking on "Magician's Success" – "the noise of hope is like a racket in my heart." This is followed by the remarkable melodic cacophony of "Planète Sauvage", which continues the utopian vibe of its predecessor by saying, in French (this is a paraphrase), "I also want to leave, to cultivate a wild planet" with the hope for a kind of "teeming liberty". This is the crux of the Vanishing Twin project, a wildly ambitious utopian project captured by a terrestrial internationalism that aims even further afield.
But it is the incredible and mind-expanding weirdness of "Backstroke" that really steals the show here, enacting a simultaneous liberation and disorientation toward which the entire album seems always to have been headed. With the opening drip-drop echoing sound that takes place against a jungle line rhythm, we are embarked upon a journey from who knows where to who knows where, but it's an exhilarating kind of shuffle. The lyrics are not of much help, and this might just be a song about swimming on your back, but given the conceptual freight that has accompanied everything else about the album so far, that seems unlikely. But if we allow ourselves to float along on the top of this choppy and at the same time gently rocking wave, there is the distinctly reassuring feeling that we won't drown, just as long as we suspend our disbelief long enough to get to shore. It's one of the more pleasant musical sensations one can imagine, and it seems to encapsulate both the sound and the attitude of the album as a whole.
The album heads for the finish line with the delightfully weird "Invisible World", another spoken word piece that feels like a tone poem accompanied by a mélange of sounds harmonious and discordant by turns, and the proceedings come to an end both rather sadly and satisfactorily with "Language Is a City (Let Me Out)". This closing track re-enacts the double movement that has been so pervasive throughout, offering both affirmation and its withdrawal almost in the same breath, all on top of a gloriously strange aural racket.
The lyrics talk of building something together ("You and I, together built a tower, with every brick as heavy as the world"), while pivoting almost immediately to a wish to escape from the collective project ("You and I, lost among the spires, hide and seek, we'd better find the key, let me out of here, let me out, let me out of here"). One can perhaps take this as a kind of metaphysical yearning to escape those "surly bonds of earth" we may have heard about in other contexts, and indeed Lucas herself has spoken of a "heartfelt wish that one day we will all be part of the United Federation of Planets". And so we conclude with another form of magical thinking that brings us full circle to the home in a strange place where we began only 45 minutes earlier.
So, as we finish our journey through the spaceways with Vanishing Twin, we might also revisit those twinned notions of generic classification and a movement toward liberation not only from those constraints but from other larger oppressions. For a while we may have pretended to check our generic type-A tendencies at the door upon entering The Age of Immunology, it is also, let's be honest, hard to resist the urge to identify where this music is coming from. The early salvo of "KRK", for example (which was recorded on an iPhone on the Croatian island of Krk – many of these songs were, quite fittingly, recorded in makeshift locations, such as the abandoned mill that was host to the recording of "Planète Sauvage") might set us off on something of a wild goose chase of influence-hunting fervor.
There is a certain sense that the Vanishing Twins sound is coming to us from both the past and the future at the same time in order better to capture a more resonant feeling of our current Zeitgeist. That they manage to exist in equipoise while in the midst of so many proliferating uncertainties is a striking balancing act, and it is therefore appropriate that their sound is neither fish nor fowl – jazz but not quite jazz, popish, but certainly not "pop" as we know it (or as we have ever known it), avant-garde in the sense that it's odd, but also oddly redolent of a certain nostalgia (for music that used to sound like the future, as so much of the nouveau-retro Broadcast and Stereolab sounds manage to pull off), at the same time that it is all quite uncannily accessible.
The Age of Immunology is the rare album that arrives full of what might topple over under the weight of its (potentially pretentious) baggage, but which instead delivers a new world of experience beyond any category, musical or otherwise. Music like this may not change your life, but it would be most surprising if it did not seriously alter your perspective.