Album Reviews

Album Review: Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven

on October 03, 2013, 12:03am
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If you’re reading this, the easiest way for you to tell the most important person in your life that you love them is probably to use a network operated and surveilled by people in control of more money than you can imagine. You can send photos, sound, video, and text to this person almost instantly. It will probably make them smile. The swarm of metadata that surrounds your actions is stored somewhere on a server that you will never see. What you click and how you click, and who you text and who you call every night before you go to sleep constantly thickens the digital shell around the human you.

This is what it is to participate in the Internet. You trade privacy for accessibility, anonymity for immediacy. The technology that has democratized communication to an unprecedented degree is still controlled by invisible entities with questionable ethics. The most powerful tools ever invented for understanding human consciousness are used by those in power to manipulate human consciousness. Advertisers optimize screen time with complex algorithms, while grocery chains hire consultants to determine exactly what music will inspire customers to buy more products. Digital utopia doubles as cyberpunk dystopia, just like iPhones and unemployment seem to indicate that we’re living in both the Great Depression and the Golden Age. Ours might be the most dissonant millennium so far.

“You can’t find your way out of the maze you are convinced has been created solely for you,” says a disembodied voice over Oneohtrix Point Never’s video for “Still Life (Betamale)”. The video, which has since been algorithmically removed from both YouTube and Vimeo, depicts pathologies exacerbated and made visible by the Internet. A man with multiple pairs of underwear stretched over his face appears to threaten suicide, a pistol aimed at each temple. Photographs of filthy keyboards and workspaces coated with empty Red Bull cans slide by under fetish videos. Women tease the viewer with their faces obscured by plush anime masks, while furries simulate sex through animal skins. Someone in a fox costume sinks into quicksand.

It’s easy to feel simultaneously like an individual and a data point online. The work of authentic self-expression shares a Venn diagram with the voluntary labor that sustains billion-dollar social media enterprises. Web designers and content producers work to drive repeat clicks, drawing in advertising revenue by engineering compulsions in strangers. Your behavior is a battery, but it sustains you, too. As tracking cookies follow you from page to page, it’s easy to feel like the maze is just for you.

Daniel Lopatin thrives in that dissonance. His new album as Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven, sounds like it was titled after an excerpt from an algorithm designed to harness the mass of data around human life. The music illuminates the tension between desire for connection and fear of control with unprecedented lucidity. This is the most successful album I’ve heard that attempts to make sense of the strange emotional states engendered by constant participation in the Internet.

R Plus Seven draws from a similar palette to its predecessor, but diverges from Replicas hypnotic loops and steady drones. There are few grooves here. The record flits from idea to idea, rarely settling, always chasing itself into flat shadows. It twitches inside a sterile space. Like a video that calmly illustrates the mechanics of a cancer cell using primitive computer animation, R Plus Seven traces hidden dread with clear, perfect lines.

Starting with the low groan of “Boring Angel”, R Plus Seven condenses a religious timbre into an eerily airless territory. Organs and choruses swell like they would in sacred music, but always sound artificial. There are voices inside, or patches that mimic human voices — it’s impossible to tell if anything you hear was ever sung or if it was all cooked up inside a machine. The album sounds like it’s been ported directly from one computer to another, like it’s never bounced around in real air.

“Americans” renders a stutter like a word replicated with a glitched-out clone stamp. In between shafts of heavenly light, voices struggle like they’re trying to communicate only to collapse under a pile of meaningless syllables. As soon as they manage a conversation with the song’s driving arpeggio, the track ends abruptly, cut off by the menacing chime of “He She”. For a minute and a half, strings keep time while more voices dart over sticky, bestial grunts. “Inside World” lets melodic gusts of breath punctuate what might be shredded Gregorian chants. Occasionally, the edge of a consonant appears in the voices, hinting at language, but no words form.

That hunger for language, for meaning inside a chaotic stream of media, is the same hunger that drove nearly a quarter of a million followers to @Horse_ebooks before the Twitter account was recently exposed as a deliberate artistic project. In the torrent of information that lies readily accessible through a computer screen, simply carving out a corner of the noise can be an act of creative joy. Twitter users loved assigning significance to the supposedly random snippets of text that Horse spewed constantly. They responded to a machine designed to sell them something meaningless — ebooks about horses — by creating meaning in the static between the ads.

Oneohtrix Point Never works with the same mechanism. Lopatin built Replica from old advertisements, dissecting and reassembling them beyond recognition. R Plus Seven also seems to draw from the wealth of sound originally designed to manipulate people into buying products, but this time the collaging is secondary. The album focuses on discrete melodic moments composed from scratch, a new process for Lopatin that he melds perfectly with old strategies. Tensions rise from textural contrasts, but there’s also raw beauty in R Plus Seven‘s melodies and progressions. With its energetic loops, “Problem Areas” even feels fun. It’s here that R Plus Seven breaks through the stutter to offer its first word: “white.”

The record’s tension peaks with “Still Life”, as the tick of an abstract clock creeps back in, echoing “He She”. Fake angelic voices compete with guttural smears in that strangely empty field. We get another clip of language: “is that—?” The track assembles into an action sequence score complete with cyberpunk sound effects, only to fracture back into melancholy voices and piano before anything can actually happen. As the album glides into closer “Chrome Country”, a track with a title that could point to a landscape lacquered in mirror or the landscape users see through Google’s browser, the tension starts to settle in sad streaks of fake strings and childlike vocal burbles. Then, Lopatin blasts apart the calm with organ, like the triumphant end of a High Mass. It feels spiritual, like catharsis, though I’m not sure that there ever was an organ — probably just a computer trying to sound like one.

“I find you in the grace of cyberspace,” says the narrator of PronunciationBook, @Horse_ebooks’ sister project on YouTube, in the last video counting down to its reveal. That word, “grace,” implies that what we’re all doing here is religious, and in a sense it is. Users participate in a kind of collective effervescence through the wires. Just like with church, moments of community participation and personal transcendence strengthen a powerful hierarchy. There’s no way to participate without the shadow of that power, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of the community that the Internet enables. I pay Comcast to be here right now, but these words aren’t for them.

The NSA might be watching, but your feelings are real. You express them through the Internet in the hopes that other people will see them and understand, and some of them do. R Plus Seven could be the inner sound of the machinery that connects the millions of people who use the Internet, receiving and sending bytes without ever understanding the emotion they carry. Listening to it feels like watching that invisible process in motion, like living in the electricity between consciousnesses. All that hope, and anxiety, and anger, and wonder fly through, coded, inscrutable to the machine, but not to you.

R Plus Seven might be the first album to crystallize the simultaneous joy and terror inherent in a life of constant connection and constant surveillance. With music that simultaneously unnerves and pleases, Lopatin digs out the ghost in the algorithm.

Essential Tracks: “Americans”, “Problem Areas”, “Still Life”, and “Chrome Country”

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