Monday, 23 January 2012

Telefon Tel Aviv - Immolate Yourself

Whenever the topic of "background" comes up, the subject always derives from what happened in the past; what sparked an album's creation; its concept, its context, its stylization, all of it reminiscing on something that occurred in a time that feels almost long-forgotten when the album in question is at last completed. Whether it be the professional and personal trauma of Roger Waters in the Floyd's The Wall, or Thom Yorke's psyche and creativity spiraling into an abyss on Kid A, albums built on experience always reflect the past and that which already happened.

It's rare that you find an album that speaks volumes not of the past, but of the future. Or rather, you as the listener believe - perceive, even - that it does. Telefon Tel Aviv, the (former) duo of Joshua Eustis & Charles Cooper, in January 2009 released Immolate Yourself. Literally meaning 'to sacrifice yourself', the album comes as a departure from their usual middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill melodic IDM mixture, breathing new life - just as quickly as it sucks it back out - into scene-setting and point-of-view that doesn't trip into the field of "concept" albums.

Two days after its release though, Cooper was found dead, an autopsy later revealing that it was not an act of suicide, as had been believed at the time.

Fans and critics alike were (and probably still are) left reeling in a sound that was once of two men's creation. What they would find would be both hauntingly beautiful, yet calmly unnerving. Immolate Yourself, is an uneasy waver of empathetic electronics, anxious layerings of instrumentation and vocals that, at the best of times, come off as desperately hopeful. Quite a connotatively bad mix on paper yes, but where your typical IDM album may shudder with badly-dressed experimentalism and wavering fields of subject matter, Immolate Yourself on the other hand executes this in as deep and meaningful a sorrowful attitude one can only replicate from the death of someone close.

Opener 'The Birds' makes no hesitation to present this darker-veilled atmosphere of emotion. Foggy layerings of analogue synths are broken apart only by the rising of jagged beats and ghostly vocals wavering to and fro either pattern. If it's not the elevation of this composition that gives it its sentimental vibe, it's the later slush of drums that intensify its atmosphere that here becomes no brighter than a hazy gloom. Follower 'Your Mouth' builds on this surrounding and, with great enormity, escalates its humming bass and drums, that sound almost clogged up, with a horn-like billowing of melodic electronics. It's only when the liberating stretch of strings and creakingly non-sensical vocals steal the [gloomy] spotlight does the track really come as close to hitting emotive personification, as electronic music can get.

'M' while less hopeless in its idealized nature, still provides a similar cloud of obscurity, its repetitive jargon of vocals falling behind a willow of ambiguous synths and blossoming hand-clapping drums. 'Mostly Translucent' on the other hand shows the album's more delicate and, in result, vulnerable side. A bubbling bass provides the backdrop to a song struggling its way through the dust and fog of its finely-tuned beats and claustrophobically-congested layers of sound.

Not only is this an album of desperation and finely-measured obscurity, but it's also one of struggle. Struggle not just to move on, as the first pop-esque structural track 'Stay Away From Being Maybe' details - white-hot sparks of drums and breathless overlays meshing together almost monstrously - but also one of acceptance. Acceptance of, indeed, what has happened and what may happen, as a result. 'Your Every Idol' intensifies the scenario with its salvo of sluggish almost dopey tripping-over of drums and distant wailing of synths. True, some may perceive this as mere filler, and though the track does instigate a sense of voided lifelessness, it sets the scene fittingly for the album's highlight, 'You Are The Worst Thing In The World'. Like some demented variation on a pop song, the track's bobbing of somewhat energetic beats paves a path that is tread on with undiluted unconcealed anxiety. Unlike the former compositions which feel hidden and obscured, this is a track that bears no such secrecy, its lyrics "You know I'm not a blind man/But truth is the hardest thing to see" are executed with a voice almost bleeding with desperation. It's only on reflection afterwards does the true beauty of the track come into light: what is it that is the worst thing? A person? A thing? Or the album has expressed so strikingly, is it the experience of such a person or thing?

Whatever the case, there's no doubting the [potential] awkwardness that Immolate Yourself presents us with. It neither ignores what potentially might hit us nor does it immediately attack it lacking in thought or ideals? Instead, the album's sound blooms in a sort of tense variation on some kind of anxiety disorder. Three years later, the death of one half of the album's creator still strikes home with intense ferocity, magnified further by the album's resulting outlaying of emotive sound-scaping. Whether or not you want to perceive this as a kind of paradoxical response to Cooper's death, I leave to your own accord. But there's no denying this is a record that very few IDM artists are able to achieve; a record that tests both the edge of productive layering and the narrow confines of our vulnerable individual selves.


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