Thursday, March 8, 2018

album review: 'superorganism' by superorganism

So I make reference all the time to how in the modern age there has been an explosion of music for audiences to find and access over the internet, more than I'll likely ever be able to cover. But there is a second side to this, and it comes in the creative side - namely that the Internet makes meeting and collaborating with fellow musicians so much easier, especially if you're not all in the same place. 

And while there are some cases where the members send in their parts remotely and only come together to tour, in recent years the DIY collectivist side of many acts eventually draws them together - we saw this with BROCKHAMPTON and now it seems like we're seeing it again with Superorganism. Now originally this was more of a conventional band, a four-piece New Zealand group called The Eversons that put out a few records in the early 2010s, but when they connected with future frontwoman Orono Noguchi, they made plans to emigrate to London and all live together, eventually bringing on board two other singers from New Zealand named Ruby and B and a South Korean singer named Soul, who has not yet joined the collective in London. From there, it seemed like an indie pop version of what BROCKHAMPTON had done halfway across the world, just this time focused more on indie pop and dance - and they've had a surprising amount of success, including a single on the FIFA 18 video game and a minor charting hit on the alternative charts. So there was certainly buzz with their self-titled debut and I'll admit I was curious, so what did we get from Superorganism?

So here's the thing: before diving into this record I was using the BROCKHAMPTON comparison as an easy reference point and I wasn't really expecting Superorganism to play in that ballpark. And man, I was wrong on that front, because the more I dug into this self-titled record, the more I was convinced that the comparison rung more true than I realized, in both the sound and the themes on a broad level. Now it's not a perfect comparison, but swap out hip-hop for pop, Spanish for Korean and Japanese, and you get a similar misshapen, technicolour experience, forged through Internet culture, traditional song structures warped in fascinating ways, and a strange collectivist melancholy in the face of a larger, uncaring world, just as rooted in the same hyper-millennial themes and framing but in a slightly different genre.

Now of course there are differences: while BROCKHAMPTON has a variety of voices in the boy band, Superorganism primarily has Orono Noguchi bringing her glazed-over yet still slightly earnest and off-kilter presentation. And it's not like there's a lack of comparison points for her: the slightly plastic delivery is reminiscent of Kero Kero Bonito, disaffected enough for non-reasons as a smattering of Lana Del Rey, on the verge of snapping like Melanie Martinez but still maintaining a real sense of millennial earnestness that smacks of Alvvays or MisterWives. So it might be tough to pick her voice out of a lineup of female indie singers these days, but in an odd way that works with Superorganism's larger lyrical tone and focus - individuality and distinct personality is still there, but very much immersed in the amorphous mass of the larger world and culture, and despite every reassurance from others to the contrary, not really so different from the rest. And if that sounds like the sort of teenage profundity that's too world-weary and medicated for its own good... well, that's because it is, but that's more framed as systems not caring than actively oppressing, and songs like 'Something For Your M.I.N.D.' highlight that self-absorbed detachment in plain sight. That's something I really like about this record: the framing is just detached enough to highlight mature realities that most adults probably don't observe the majority of teenagers already understand... mostly because the adults don't get it themselves. 'It's All Good' literally juxtaposes the sampled self-empowerment speeches of Tony Robbins with a hook sarcastically calling out its hollowness, and 'Nobody Cares' drills into the sad truth that the rest of the world really doesn't give a shit how you look or what you do - but in comparison with the detached bitterness that ran through similar deconstructions in the 70s or 90s, for Superorganism that distance from the world either in larger systems or technology has been a fact of life, and they see something tremendously freeing about the autonomy and the chance to build their own systems. And yet even there on the title track and 'The Prawn Song', they're well aware of the dehumanization that can come in that collective identity, or how hollow it can feel when everyone is running in the night to get away from loneliness on 'Night Time', or how everyone chases the spotlight on 'Everybody Wants to Be Famous'. But even despite the barriers and futility, they still chase connection on songs like 'Reflections On The Screen', and there's a potent wistful undercurrent that feels both grounded and very human - for the younger generation who can get into this sound, I can see this having a lot of resonance.

Of course, that's arguably the biggest obstacle for Superorganism: the production. And it's here where the BROCKHAMPTON comparison rears again: wild, garish colors in the synth arrangements, jagged shifts in tone and momentum from track to track - sometimes even within the song - and entirely too much pitch-shifting and tacked on samples and effects to take metaphorical references and make them thuddingly literal. What will probably throw audiences the most are the hard juxtapositions between the synth grooves - pulsating, jagged, from more organic swell to borderline chiptune - and the burbles of guitar that highlight the core of a dreamy, modern indie rock band still within, especially when you have hooks that contort against a natural rhythm like 'Something For Your M.I.N.D.' or 'The Prawn Song' or the title track. And if you're looking for an inroad to 'getting' Superorganism's sound, it probably comes most in the keening, often atonal guitar progressions instead of the synth collages, if only for a little more structure and organic tone against a mix that'll lumber forward like a gelatinous ooze, swallowing everything in its path. And once you pick up on that melodic foundation the patterns often become striking: rounded bubbles of guitar chords playing against alien synths, twisted percussion, and production gimmickery that at least for me didn't quite resonate as well as it could. Yes, I get why letting the background street noise saturate 'Relax' is a musical metaphor for how difficult that can be, but it doesn't make it any less of a shrill, keening headache - or take 'Nai's March', which starts off as one of the more conventional tracks here with the understated watery groove and misty vocals... before a bridge that piles in an abundance of Tokyo-adjacent sound effects to match the lyrics and it's less immersive than just overmixed and awkwardly clashing. Better examples of this actually working are 'Nobody Cares' which takes a sneezing sound and blows it up to repurpose as percussion against a hook that's unbelievably catchy, or how the title track and 'The Prawn Song' use gurgling cascades of watery noise and heavier backing vocals to emphasize the collectivist element. And yet there's a part of me that'll still point to the Alvvays-esque vintage indie pop of 'Reflections On The Screen' as a standout - still lumbering and atonal at spots, with with the keyboard embellishments on the bridge and a damp, stormy mix to intensify the atmosphere, it clicks.

And yet even with all of that, the heavy usage of pitch-shifted vocals just never clicks with me as much as I'd like... but I have to wonder for a modern younger audience who have grown up with that sound whether it'll just enhance the odd accessibility of this project. And that's the thing: the more I listened to this project the more I saw little middle ground in its future appreciation: it'll drive away so many put off by the atonal elements... but the pop-leaning millennial tone makes me think it's only a matter of time before it soundtracks a particularly warped episode of Riverdale. And while critics have drawn comparisons to The Avalanches and Beck for their sonic collage approach, the one that springs to mind for me is Ariel Pink, not in tone but ethos in taking the venial junk of culture, internet or otherwise, and mutating it into something deformed but catchy all the same. In other words, while I think I might appreciate the self-titled debut from Superorganism more than I love it, I'm giving it a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially for my younger fans. I can't promise you'll get through the weird production, but if you give it enough of a chance, I can see this becoming a huge underground favourite, so definitely check this out!

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