Review Summary: A strange scene it is, under, over, through.
In 2010, electronic duo The Knife released Tomorrow, in a Year
, the studio version of an opera they had been commissioned to write about Charles Darwin. The album was a stark departure from the upbeat (if sometimes dark) electronic music The Knife had delivered on previous albums: experimental, atonal, and polarizing. While most listeners agreed that the radiant, explosive “Colouring of Pigeons” was a standout track, the rest of the album was met with more divergent opinions. Many listeners rejected the stretches of near-silence, the discordant screeches, and the structure-less synth drones that filled the first disc. But others cherished the album in its entirety, unearthing a world of monumental wonder and tension from its more subdued or hostile moments.
I can't resist drawing parallels between Tomorrow, in a Year
and clipping.'s Splendor & Misery
, from the heady narratives to the atmospheric tone to even specific sound effects, such as the bleeps and whirrs that appear in both "Intro"/"Epochs" and "All Black." But the more significant parallel lies in what the two albums are not. Like Tomorrow, in a Year
, Splendor & Misery
is defiantly inaccessible in sound and structure. Even in comparison to the noisy, experimental sound that defined clipping.'s previous work, the album is bizarre and off-putting, full of ambient noise and digressions into gospel hymns. It stubbornly refuses to deliver on expectations of what a clipping. album should sound like as well as what a sci-fi concept album should sound like, but it does so without spectacle. Instead of flinging a middle finger at its critics, it sits patiently and stoically, indifferent to its detractors, confident that what it has spoken will eventually find receptive ears, and that what those ears will hear is a powerful truth.
The template for most space-based concept albums is essentially Star Wars
in album form: a sprawling, symphonic epic complete with a campily convoluted narrative (see: Coheed and Cambria, Vektor's Terminal Redux
). There is perhaps a version of clipping.'s sound that might have fit this script, with Daveed Diggs spitting fire at light speed over celestial synth runs and beats that resemble blasters, but that version is nowhere to be found on Splendor & Misery
. Instead, the album takes its aesthetic cues from the likes of Alien
and 2001: A Space Odyssey
. Rather than soaring across the galaxy in a pristine spaceship, Splendor & Misery
creeps through the corridors of a derelict vessel. William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes find music in the hum of machinery, the hiss of static, and the echo of boot against steel grating, conjuring a claustrophobic yet captivating world that surrounds and engulfs the listener.
Daveed Diggs' verses populate that world with its two main characters: Cargo 2331, the sole survivor of a slave uprising on board an interstellar cargo vessel, and the mothership AI who observes and falls in love with him. As the latter, Diggs delivers a near-monotone elevated by a hypnotic flow, effortlessly bouncing verse after verse off the sparse, atmospheric beats. His delivery captures the cold, detached feel of a computer, but a handful of ever so slightly emotive moments ("This love will be defended at all costs, do not fuc
k with it") offers just a hint of humanity in the character. As Cargo 2331, Diggs' delivery is considerably more charismatic, and he provides the oppressive atmosphere with a subject to oppress. On the two freestyle interludes, the character paces the halls of the ship, spitting angry, biting verses as though each syllable was a distinct "fuc
k you" to his oppressors.
But even as Cargo 2331 spits these fuc
k you verses and commandeers the ship that enslaved him, he finds he cannot easily escape the shadow of his enslavement; every known world he could pilot the ship to would thrust him right back into slavery. And so, Hutson and Snipes' oppressive, claustrophobic world remains throughout the album. Spirituals "Long Way Away" and "Story 5" offer a temporary respite from this world, but little more. It isn't until album closer "A Better Place" that Cargo 2331 finally finds his escape. In a brilliant subversion of Lovecraftian horror, faced with the vast expanse of the universe, the character learns just how insignificant humanity is, and rather than terror, he feels relief. He decides to drive the ship into the great unknown, finding solace in a place where humans--and, by extension, the systems that violently oppress him--do not matter. This moment of realization is framed by church bells and bright organ chords, providing a massive, triumphant contrast to the claustrophobia of the fourteen tracks that preceded it.
Of course, none of these points are likely to persuade Splendor & Misery
's detractors that the album is a masterpiece. Nor should it. Like Tomorrow, in a Year
before it, Splendor & Misery
will find its audience organically, creeping its way into the rotation of a handful of music lovers who feel the brilliance in every moment. Perhaps the rest of you can now understand why.