nalog tape is dead. At the turn of the new year, Quantegy, at the time the world's only remaining producer of studio-grade magnetic recording media, shuttered up, leaving the world's analog nerds to have crises of faith that must be on the level of the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps it's something to do with having a tangible object to show for a full day's work, perhaps it's simple nostalgia—either way it's a bit out of my pay-grade to guess. But a few months after this announcement, John Vanderslice—the man who, in 2002, wrote a joyous love letter to his analog home-recording gear called "Me and My424"—announced on his studio's website that he's now dragged in a ProTools HD set-up. All manner of complaints about illogical machine glitchery and enforced obsolescence will, and should, ensue.
So our man titles his latest album Pixel Revolt, giving name and voice to those vaguely-amoebic ones and zeroes that are making great strides in eradicating his way of life. Which brings us to 9/11, as this is America, and everything does. I was in Manhattan then, attending art school about a mile-and-a-half away from the scene, and I slept right through it, despite the loud turmoil just outside my door. (Save the snickers; my being awake at that moment would have served zero purpose.) Upon waking, I joined the rest of the world planted in front of my TV, watching the events unfold on a constant loop, as it took hours for me to get up the gumption to go outside and see it for myself. And so discourses our John on album highlight/thesis statement/world-is-fucked essay "Exodus Damage": "The second plane / Hit at 9:02 / Saw it live on a hotel TV / Talking on my cell with you," then berating his friend after the fact: "An hour went by without a fighter in the sky / You said, “There's a reason why” / Tell me now, I must confess I'm not / I'm not sick enough to guess." Everyone had a theory that day, and many still do, and it turns out basically all of them were misguided. This is the second verse, immediately following the chorus: "Dance, dance, revolution / All we're gonna get / Unless it falls apart / So I say go / Go, go, go down / Let it fall down / I'm ready for the end." The song itself is a simple bit of acoustic guitar-led jangle, and this bit of apocalyptic rage-against-a-changing-unknowable-world comes fluttering in on a drizzle of keys. The music is some of his poppiest yet, and his words are at their most subversive. Even if the contrast is obvious, it's still dazzling, and just a little uncomfortably close to the bone.
While this literalism can occasionally be a little overbearing—he sets a wistful tour diary to a dinky little nursery rhyme on "Peacocks In the Video Rain," and it almost red-lines the Puke-O-Meter—it's obvious that, throughout, Vanderslice has a point, and is more than happy to just get to it. The almost Mahler-esque pomp and circumstance of "Radiant With Terror," replete with bashing, martial drums, clanging bells, and stabbing acoustic strums is accompanied by waling about how we've "talked ourselves to death," and ends with the refrain, "Crying together / Without tears," as direct an indictment of the ideological terror of today as you're likely to find. The keyboard-twinkle and synth-flute ballad "Trance Manual" tells the harrowing tale of a captured Western journalist in the Middle East, in a dreamy haze of whispered pain, homesick longing, and fevered dislocation. The ballads that close the record are among its strongest moments: "Dead Slate Pacific" spins experiences in the hinterlands of psychiatric medication over a lightly scrubbed solo guitar accompaniment;"CRC7173, Affectionately" lays the album's intentions out bare, one more time—"We all / Have to fall / But why so fast? / And why so far? /It's so much better now..." —over bar-band piano and shuffling drums.
Our boy John, being a singer-songwriter, is engaging in those old "the personal is the political" tropes that were thrown out in the '80's.You can say what you want about the corner that our current identity politics had to turn away from, but it brought a lot of people into the conversation who otherwise wouldn't give a shit; so while most political art these days is too willing to scream prejudice at the choir, Pixel Revolt is the sound of a man trying to come to grips with the larger questions—the "why?" questions—and, if nothing else, the sheer attempt makes this an essential album for our troubled times. All complaints about illogical glitchery and enforced obsolescence are made, beautifully, right here.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: AUGUST 22 – AUGUST 28, 2005