Review Summary: g 1 i t /////h popSo what's your favourite conspiracy theory
oh ha ha, man I love glitch pop. What the hell. What a wild genre. Does it even exist? I become less certain with every release I hear - and at this point, the amount of [art]pop albums' worth of [gl]itches I've heard is greater than the maximum number of eggs considered acceptable to put in an omelette. How many eggs in a good omelette? Fuck knows. Most of them, probably. Anyhow, the qualities that make good glitch albums good and bad ones bad are entertainingly inconsistent between releases, as are their wider genre affiliations, production stylings, scene geographies, ideal listening environments and colour schemes. This is a good thing; no two glitches should be identical, so it (probably) follows that no two glitch albums should sound the same. However, it's become a lot easier to define what (maybe) is and what (definitely) isn't contemporary glitch pop; the likes of Clarence Clarity, Baths and Arca emerged as a loosely triangulable set of figureheads, and the world's growing fervour for hyperpop has boosted its appetite for abrasive novelty up to high heaven. There is more glitch pop, and more of it sounds similar; either the genre’s illuminati are running out of ideas or they're finally zeroing in on what they're really about. Groovy.
You may be asking where the shiny exciting new[ish] album Palimpsest
by veteran breakcore producer Lauren Bousfield fits into all this. After all, we are talking about a short, sweet, material album
in this thinkpeace (canonical intertext innit), and not the smokey, stuttery shape of a nebulously existent metagenre more macro than the invisible ocean that both birthed and swallowed your childhood dreams at past moments no longer possible to pinpoint. Or are we? Well, this was the plan (I promise), but it turns out that Palimpsest
is one perfect answer to the confused imperative of what a glitch pop album should sound like in 2020. What does this mean? It means two things! On the one hand, it’s a smart, focused and extremely confident release that you should listen to and weigh up in the context of 2020 and glitch and pop and other things also; on the other hand, it’s a genre bastard that teases a slew of stylistic pathways in vicious flurry while refusing to commit to any of them. It doesn’t exactly defy categorisation, but it sure as hell toys with it with an encouraging sense of irresponsibility - and that
, plus a large North Korean town’s worth of technological dysfunction, is what makes it appropriate material for the shadowcanon.
At this point, the entire Sputnikmusic Staff roster is collectively screaming at me to please for the love of God talk about the music in detail
(or they would be if they weren’t tightening their fingers around their fiftieth consecutive playthrough of The Last of Us
while getting terminally hung up that this isn’t a collection of Protest the Hero remixes). Okay! It’s intense! It’s loud! It’s gloriously tasteless and many people will probably hate it (good thing there’s still enough remaining quarantine for infinite-repeat Fleet Foxes slumber party-of-ones to still be viable timekillers)! It sounds vaguely like the third Crystal Castles self-titled album eating Venetian Snares’ crossover-classical breakbeat epic Rossz Csillag Alatt Született
and giving itself an ultra-catchy makeover. Crackling bursts of noise punctuate uneasy soundscapes while disjointed beats and sugary melodies cater to the most maladjusted of attention spans, and all the while Bousfield’s vocals pull in and out of focus at such unstable aperture that you’ll mistake it for retinal contractions.
Let’s put some facts under the microscope: the album’s Bandcamp genre tags include ‘electronic’, ‘classical’, ‘noise’, ‘punk’, ‘experimental’, and 'Los Angeles', which I guess is cogent enough given how unapologetically obnoxious it is, but it bears emphasising that no individual genre label is particularly helpful in defining it. This is because Palimpsest
effectively consists of multiple albums-that-could-have been folded into one, to which end its respective veins of potential are rich and palpable. It could have gone full-on Vsnares and embraced classical breakcore wholesale, as “Crawling Into a Fireplace Crackling” and the ominous title-track briefly hint at, but this influence is reined in and used to accent dramatic flourishes, preluding tracks rather than leading them. It could have been a 100 gecs-esque disasterpop knockout, as “A Big Box…” and “Administrative Violence” almost posit, but Bousfield presents her hooks as ineffable modulated slurs rather than giving them the contour of memorable lyricism; the album comes out as a flurry of catchy melodies, but you'll struggle to sing along to any of them. A series of other pathways are drafted and erased in turn; the album could have stuck to straight breaks (“Birds Falling Out of the Sky”, “Futureless”), gone harder on electro-industrial (“Adraft”), or tipped its hat to convention and churned out a series of midtempo stutter-bops (“A Joke Poorly Told”). It opts for none of these things wholesale, but we are treated to all of them like a kaiten sushi circuit from hell. Audacious.
What are we to make of this stubborn refusal to fully commit to any single constituent element? The album certainly takes this approach in its stride with a feverish energy, but there's a slight why would you do that?
that may hover in the background for some listeners. To this end, its nomenclature is almost irritatingly convenient; a palimpsest
refers to a recycled transcription surface that can carry distinct layers of writing in succession. Imagine you're a small-ish Roman household which, for reasons, only has one wax tablet. That slab's gonna get some heavy mileage! You get your paterfamilias dictating a list of appointments to a scribe; your senior house slave is copying down the next week's shopping list; your precocious elder daughter is transcribing unfamiliar words from Greek love poetry; and your slightly disappointing underage scion is still trying to scribble the alphabet consistently in the margins. Now imagine that all these layers are simultaneously visible on the same surface and that they are not Roman memos, but rather disparate genres presented in a mesh of overlapping shapes and stylings by scribe-in-chief Laurena Bousus Fieldum.
What a hot mess - or so you would think; in a convenient twist of fate, it turns out that her formidable production chops are comfortably sufficient to integrate these separate strands of aleatory mishmash into an entertaining and largely coherent ArtWork: less a mess, and more an album prepared to draw on an exciting and unpredictable tangle of possibilities. Bousfield concentrates her compositions around a small number of core melodies but allows the stylisations to reroute at the drop of a hat, and one of the album's main attractions is the way she constantly finds new inspiration from unexpected sources. This comes into play recurrently, and it's a shrewd counter for the tendency of individual songs to burn through ideas at a seemingly unsustainable rate. You'll get halfway through a track like “Administrative Violence” and think it's run out of steam, only for it to lurch into a strobed barrage of transmuted guitars that promptly gives way to the grooviest beat/bassline of the album. Bousfield doesn't exactly pick bones about bashing this out like a triumphant throwdown; maybe it wasn't what you'd expect from the track's blueprint, but it’s her ways (yes, Karen, all of them) or the highway.
In the midst of this dizzying weave of noisy arrangements, Bousfield’s voice is perhaps the most recognisable unifying element. It is also key to whatever wider statements you might view this album as making. Buried in the middle of the mix and modulated beyond comprehension but not humanity, she adopts a vaguely similar styling to the aforementioned Crystal Castles III
, minus a little reverb and plus several Jew's harps' worth of pitch shifting. Unlike that album, which both contextually and aesthetically presented vocalist Alice Glass as a session conscript whose talents were spliced and juggled at the leisure of an exploitative creative partner, Bousfield seems to relish the ambiguity of her audience coming out of the album with no clear idea of what she is singing about or what she would sound like removed from the comfort of her DAW. One of Palimpsest
's more successful accomplishments comes in the way it confines these things to irrelevance and harnesses its creator's larynx to the matrix. Bousfield's voice is as much a plaything as any other part of her arrangement, but since the various layers of authorship and mechanisation are more discernible there than, say, her depersonalised drumbeats, the album's wider chaotic intentions can be gleaned from her vocals and straightforwardly transposed to the more overtly artificial sounds in her mix. As an openly trans artist, there’s also a salient point to be made about how confidently she reinvents the female voice for her own ends, but I think it would be unfair to the album's complexity and ambiguity to second-guess this as a Defining Imperative Statement and reduce the album's scope to one expedient point. Why would you assemble such a maelstrom of competing inspirations if you wanted your audience to draw one single simple conclusion from it?
This brings us to Palimpsest
's chief caveat: it's well and worthwhile to accept the album on the terms of its own clutter, but this shouldn't fool us into shirking reservations over how much further these sounds might have been developed. Most of these tracks are charged with enough energy and intrigue that their flashfire chaos doesn’t demand resolution, yet repeat listens yield a sense that the album is pulling punches. Its refusal to do anything more than tease the individual strengths of its various inspirations, coupled with the sheer exhaustion of making it through a half hour of such scattergun intensity, leaves me with a nagging feeling that a little more tangible contour and/or a stronger resolution to double down on its strongest ideas would have done this album a world of favours. This tracklist is already lean enough that it would hardly benefit from further trimming; the album needs more will to deliver full-tilt knockouts instead of dancing manically round the lay-lines of illusionary points. “Clean Strategic Narratives With Relatable Messaging Murder Them Violently Make Their Children Watch” (that’s right.) is comfortably my highlight track, and by no coincidence it’s also one of the only songs that fleshes its sections to the full. It reserves the majority of its bombast for a furious final minute where the breaks run away entirely before sublimating into a harsh noise meltdown. All this feels entirely earned and even - to a point! - necessary
given the slickness and patience harboured by the preceding verse/chorus setup. In some ways, this track is as much a whirlwind as any other here, but it’s one of the few points where Bousfield seems entirely invested in each individual part, not just the friction between competing elements. A little less disorienting flurry and a little more of this, please!
answers the question of what glitch pop is or may be in 2020; turns out it’s a lot more fiddly, erratic and composite than you probably thought, not to mention a lot less worth defining. Hooray. I'm not sure to what extent this question was ultimately worth posing given that 2019’s answer turned out to be FKA Twigs' masterpiece-of-the-week Magdalene
(don't fret, you're not alone in totally forgetting that one prior to this review), but there are much more interesting and important questions that we can glean from this year’s furnishing of Palimpsest
as its answer: what is Lauren Bousfield’s final form, will we ever get to hear it, how hard will it go, how much harder could this have gone, and how much further is it possible to take this blend of styles while maintaining the same manic equilibrium that makes them so attractive this time around? These are
important questions, thank you very much, because Palimpsest
is hooky and tenacious and exciting and it damn well m a k e s them important. Go and listen to it and keep your complaints to yourself if they’re the boring ones - or else people (that’s right) will stare at you and mutter things such as not very glitch pop of u
at inconsistent volumes in bad rooms. This is an excellent album. Ta. Bye!