The oppressive level of noise on VR Sex's Human Traffic Jam, Noel Skum's monotone vocal delivery, and the weird but unengaging tangents make this album very much an acquired taste.
Human Traffic Jam
10 May 2019
VR Sex is a project that straddles several different genre lines. It's a little noise-rock, a little industrial, a little new wave, a little synth-rock, and probably a few other subgenres I'm forgetting. The album is a sideline for Andrew Clinco of the band Drab Majesty, here calling himself Noel Skum. Skum recorded the whole album himself with producer Ben Greenberg, but the live version of VR Sex is a trio, with Z. Oro on vocals and drums and Mico Frost on synths and bass.
Drab Majesty is also a Clinco project (in that one he goes by the androgynous title of Deb Demure) with a decidedly '80s synthpop style. Clearly, VR Sex is a different enough idea that he wanted to remove it from his main band. And there are some key differences. There is a haze of noise over everything on Human Traffic Jam. Whether that's an actual audible sound or just a feeling of oppressiveness depends on the track, but it's present throughout the album. That haze immediately creates a downbeat mood that says, "We're not here to have fun." It's very effective, and the record is assuredly not fun.
So if the album isn't any fun, are the songs good enough to make it a worthwhile listen? No, not really. There isn't much on Human Traffic Jam that's outright bad, but there isn't anything that transcends the noise and scuzziness to catch the ear, either. The closest the album gets is on a pair of songs that have very different feels. "Downgrade" begins with low, buzzing synth bass and synth drums, but soon adds a chiming electric guitar. Skum's chanting, spoken word vocals, though low in the mix, have genuine energy, particularly on the chorus, where he shouts, "Time to break down / Time to break down!" over a pulsing hi-hat and distorted guitar. It sounds sort of like Depeche Mode trying a punk song.
"Maiden China", on the other hand, begins with two clashing distorted sounds, one synth and one guitar, before resolving into a kind of grinding pop-rock. Growling distorted bass and tinny drums sounds give the song its main layer of noise while other sounds flit in and out. Lyrically, Skum is taking on consumer excess and human trafficking via a monotone delivery, and it would be interesting if the vocal delivery weren't so flat. This track more resembles an early Ministry song if Al Jourgensen was too tired to record a solid vocal take.
And those are the highlights. Opener "Surrender" mashes up industrial noise, chiming '80s pop guitar, and, even stranger, the vocal cadence from Local H's minor '90s hit "Bound for the Floor". "Sacred Limousine" takes the social commentary of "Maiden China" but fully buries the vocals in the mix while failing to do anything interesting of note musically.
But wait, those are just the catchy songs! On the back half of the record, Noel Skum cedes most of the vocal duties to pre-recorded found audio. "Cheek Detritus" finds a doctor describing a plastic surgery and a woman's unhappiness with the results. It throws another Ministry-esque buffet of industrial noise under this audio, which ends with the self-help punchline that she was unhappy with the results because it didn't change how she felt inside. "Pyscho Cybernetiks" sounds like an unearthed VHS-era sales pitch for some electronic-based self-help (yes, again) program. The music underneath is all wobbly synth chords and woozy noise, with so little direction that it's difficult even to call it a song.
The album closes with the six-minute "Facts Without Faces", which has some nice new wave stylings and unexpected chord changes. But it cycles through those changes repeatedly to the point where the listener feels every one of those six minutes. But VR Sex isn't quite done. After this last song, there's an eight-minute instrumental, "Corridor (Epilogue)" that finishes out the album for real. It's eight minutes of ambiance, with slow, shimmering synths and found audio of what sounds like children shouting and playing. It's interminable.
The bits of life that pop up on Human Traffic Jam include some interesting, unusual combinations of styles. But the oppressive level of noise, Skum's monotone vocal delivery, and the weird but unengaging tangents make this album very much an acquired taste. The week I spent with the record was not enough for me to acquire that taste.