The Retro-Future of Music Is Simian Mobile Disco's 'Whorl' Live Show

A lesson in how to make future-music by limiting technology.

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Sep 23 2014, 9:30pm

Image: press handout

With so much music- and video-making software out there just waiting to be downloaded, illicitly or otherwise, the act of creating music can feel just as paralyzing as it can liberating or democratic. Music producers are left to feel almost but never quite on the cutting-edge; the target is always moving. The way around this cornucopia of gear is to instead master a few pieces of hardware and software.

This is precisely what Simian Mobile Disco does on their latest album Whorl. Using only two modular synthesizers and sequencers each, along with a single mixer, Jas Shaw and James Ford went back to find the future. Coupled with an analogue visual system, Whorl becomes the perfect recorded and live antidote to a field of electronic music producers deploying cheap future-aesthetics because it's the current fashion.

Simian Mobile Disco's Whorl is the antithesis of its albums past, which often competed for dance floor shares with the likes of Justice, MSTRKRFT, and Digitalism. The duo's debut record, 2007's Attack Decay Sustain Release, is a melange of clean, danceable fun built on electro-house and disco foundations, and updated for a new millennium. Whorl is a more molten, amorphous, and experimental affair, with one foot firmly planted in the swirling sonic textures of Cluster and Tangerine Dream, while the other steps into the terra incognita of modern electronic music.

On Whorl, the laptops and touchscreen controllers offering current producers limitless possibilities are intentionally jettisoned from the duo's workflow in favor of, well, limits. Shaw and Ford wanted to do things the way the Krautrockers did: all analogue and live, with synthesizers (often modular) acting unpredictably like they were alive, which was half the fun for the band and audience. Since Whorl is essentially a live album of modular soundscapes, stitched together from three different performances recorded in the California desert, one could say it was tailor-made for the stage.

What the duo didn't want was for Whorl to be just a pale retro replica of '70s electronic music. Instead, like the madcap anarchist filmmaker Terry Gilliam, Simian Mobile Disco wanted to use older analogue technology to project a future world. The idea was to see how far they could push their artifact of a modular system into the sound-future.

Whorl is also an album that isn't identifiably one genre or another, or even a clear amalgam of a few. It lies across multiple electronic music axes, what one is forced to call simply "electronic music." This comes across in even greater clarity in SMD's live performances. The Whorl visuals, which are similarly retro-futurist, play no small part in the live experience and wind up just as essential as the music.

In fact, Shaw and Ford hadn't even built their modular rig when they decided to pull in two frequent visual collaborators, Hans Lo and Jack Featherstone. The visual artists' task was to construct an analogue video synthesizer to mirror the sonic ones Shaw and Ford would be using on Whorl. The result: an oscilloscope-driven system, one that behaved a bit like a video synthesizer that could be fed sound and visual data.

Image: Simian Mobile Disco

Loosely based on the Rutt-Etra effect, a form of video synthesis that allows for real-time video manipulation that yields morphing, 3D scan-like visuals, Lo and Featherstone's oscilloscope system allows them to colorize and arrange patterns and shapes. These constantly shifting colors and patterns became the source material for Whorl's music videos, album sleeve, and the live visuals.

This past Sunday at the Music Hall of Williamsburg I had a chance to check out Simian Mobile Disco's retro-futurist show; to see for myself if analogue modular synthesis, oscilloscope patterns, and a dollop of software could light the way for the future of electronic music shows.

The two strode out onstage—Shaw looking vaguely like The Office's Mackenzie Crook, Ford like a dark-haired Jack Nance from Eraserhead—and took up seats at their respective modular rigs, looking more like scientific researchers than performers. After a moment of silence, they slowly pulled the audience in with the warm, pulsating analogue synth notes of album opener "Red Shift." On screen, Lo and Featherstone's oscilloscope patterns assembled themselves, flickering and flashing in the flat void.

The duo performed Whorl front-to-back, a tactic that works to their advantage in building this retro-futurist world. This sequential musical performance and Lo and Featherstone's visuals, which burst and cascade in two and three dimensions, work to create a cyberdelic effect. It felt like how electronic music should be performed, not only right now but in the future. Noticeably absent at the Whorl show was the tongue-in-cheek, neo-Daft Punk electro house of Simian Mobile Disco's "Hustler," and in was a band looking to map out the side-channels of electronic music's multimedia frontiers.

Clark's Phosphor show, which also features a modular rig and luminous green oscilloscope shapes, has a similar effect on the audience. The oscilloscope's shapes seems to expand, contract, and otherwise kalaidoscopically move around a central point. Whorl's live visuals are more chaotic, as though Lo and Featherstone are constantly pushing the system toward information overload, but always pulling back at the right moment. In that way, the oscilloscope system parallels Simian Mobile Disco's modular synthesizers, gear that is well know for having a sort of electrical life of its own. 

Outside of Simian Mobile Disco and Clark, other forward-thinking electronic music artists have charted similar conceptual, multimedia territory. Squarepusher's Ufabulum show was mesmerizing with its gigantic screen of mathematical LED lights. Amon Tobin's groundbreaking ISAM show, which found the producer performing in a cubic structure serving as a 3D screen for granular projection-mapped visuals, set the bar for all other acts to follow. This, of course, was three or four years after the legendary pyramidal media extravaganza that was Daft Punk's Alive show, which might be the grandpappy to them all.

Those three shows, like the aspects of a Hindu godhead, were but three aspects of how electronic shows could be done in the future. It was a future happening then, just as Whorl and Phosphor are futures happening now. In these latter futures, analogue technology—paired with modern hardware and software—is pushed into aesthetic vistas beyond its original design, giving concertgoers something they've never seen before. Many more will surely exist, though hopefully because of the artists' true vision and not some cheap cyber-fashion.

Image: Simian Mobile Disco

With the analogue interfaces at the heart of Whorl, from Simian Mobile Disco's modular rigs to Lo and Featherstone's oscilloscope system, it's as if they all ducked under ISAM's bar. It wasn't only an aesthetic choice, but one arrived at through the artistic practice of technical limitation. It's like the four artists asked themselves (as true collaborators would), "How futuristic can we make this multimedia experience without using the most cutting edge gear?"

As it turns out, quite futuristic indeed. The Whorl experience could be described as a positive spin on Alvin Toffler's concept of future shock. Instead of information overload alienating people, Whorl invites concertgoers to revel in the presence of analogue technology as it spins slightly off its axis, all the while maintaining its melodic, rhythmic, and visual structure. At its best, Whorl shows fans and any producers in attendance what they could do with multimedia tools in the future. This is a unique effect of Simian Mobile Disco's creative limitations.

Sure, a hologram or projection-mapped 3D visuals impress with their designers' mastery of the latest and greatest in tech. But, isn't it also remarkable to see how the oscilloscope, designed in the early 20th century to test waveforms by visualizing them on x-y-z axes, looks so simultaneously past, present, and futuristic? This is also the genius of Whorl, which is simultaneously a record, a live performance, and a multimedia experience.

With Whorl, which exists as unique blend of both recorded document and live experience, Simian Mobile Disco, along with Lo and Featherstone, push analogue technology to and even beyond its limits. None of this would work if the Whorl record and live show were crap. Simian Mobile Disco's ethos would lack impact. But, because they are consummate musicians and performers, whose mastery of gear here rivals Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada's, the live Whorl experience—which I'd argue is the album's true medium—becomes transcendent art.

What can we learn from the Whorl live show and overall project? It occurs that instead of discarding our aged technology every time a company like Apple releases a new product, we should rather make our analogue and digital devices bleed the future. There's something very Neuromancer-esque about this approach: make discarded technology work for you however and wherever you can. With any hope, those who see Whorl live will be similarly inspired.