Thursday, July 12, 2018

album review: 'a laughing death in meatspace' by tropical fuck storm

So this is one of those cases where my scheduling process can get aggressively irritating - because I should have been out of the gate first with this review.

I'm serious about this: when Tropical Fuck Storm were first added to my schedule months back when their debut dropped, I didn't really have anything to go off of but a great band name and there were so many established acts on my schedule that got more votes first. And thus it fell back to lower tiers but eventually got the organic groundswell to rise up my schedule for me to be covering it now... two months late and after critics both on and off YouTube are cheering its praises. Maybe I should have taken the steps to engineer coverage earlier, but I can only do it for so many acts and it sadly becomes a real balancing act what I get to cover and when, especially if I'm trying to aggressively stay on top of new releases.

But enough of my complaining: Tropical Fuck Storm! An Australian indie rock act, affiliated with King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and formed by the former frontman of The Drones Gareth Lilliard - a band that probably deserve to have been a lot bigger stateside in the past decade - and already developing a reputation for wildly colourful rock music for those in the know - as in pre-Pitchfork coverage, although they'll be saying otherwise when this band blows up as big. And sometimes you just need some unstable riffs to compensate for the inevitable fact any video I make will get flagged to hell and back by YouTube. But since I'm not about to censor a good 'fuck' here, what did we find from A Laughing Death In Meatspace?

So this was a fascinating record to listen through - and a pretty damn great one to boot - but it's also the sort of project where it's almost as interesting to make comparisons to other acts that may not have influenced Tropical Fuck Storm, but share common lineage. So if any of you get excited when I can describe this as a shaggier, more unkempt version of The Drones, with vocals that sound as if Nick Cave became a sunbaked, paranoid hippie instead of the haunted apocalypse prophet that's hung around him for decades, although you could definitely make the argument a coming apocalypse hangs heavy in this songwriting - if that excites you, you're going to want to have heard this record yesterday, even if with every listen I give it, the more I keep circling back to Jack White and Boarding House Reach and how this album feels like it's doing some of those tones justice.

Now to make sure I wasn't crazy, I revisited chunks of Boarding House Reach in between listening to this, and while the comparison is not exact especially in the production, I'd argue there's something to it in the skittering melody lines, southern rock influences, blown out grooves, heavy usage of female vocals to serve as counterpoint to the frontman, and how generally offkilter both records can feel in their deep cuts. But say what you will about how talented White is, there was a certain calculation to how the melodies and especially the grooves were mixed on that record, which on top of sounding way too clean never flattered the stabs at funk. Whereas coming from psychedelia, Tropical Fuck Storm may never double down on the grooves nearly as much beyond using the bass as a smoky, firm if unstable foundation as the guitars keen and gummy waves of synth contort the mix, but it winds up flattering more of an improvisational looseness that makes the grooves far more appealing to me. And while that's most apparent on the most garage-leaning tracks like 'You Let My Tyres Down' and 'Rubber Bullies', when you get the farting blocks of noise around 'Antimatter Animals', the rubbery noxiousness of 'Chameleon Paint', and the glitchy chop of the strumming and groove on 'The Future Of History' certainly feel credible in how at any moment the songs can fly apart in a storm of exposed tension and howling riffs. And all of it is coaxed through a mix that leans into the suffocating, overheated tones, where grooves can stutter and stumble into desert rock grind, where psychedelia is guaranteed to turn into nightmares, where the vocals are just cacophonous enough to intensify the tension but never to the point of suffocation, almost so thick you don't realize that a few of these tunes might almost be too unstable and shrill for comfort like 'Antimatter Animals' and 'Chameleon Paint', and that the drumlines are kind of undercooked overall. In fact, if I do have a glaring criticism about this record, it'd come in the percussion, because for as good as the drums sound, if only to match the jittery, unstable guitar work they could have afforded to be a little more progressive or frenetic to notch that tension at a higher level. And while on the subject, while the instrumental passage 'Shellfish Toxin' is fine as a breather after how ironically crushing and heavy 'Soft Power' can feel, but for as much as I liked the guitar work the keening tonal blend did get on my nerves, especially when there's not a single song on this record shorter than four minutes and over half are over five.

But really, that does play to this record's punishing strength, and to discuss that we need to talk about the lyrics and themes. Lilliard has gone on record saying this is a record about 'flawed people thinking about flawed things' and that he was trying to stay away from the more didactic lyrics that characterized some albums from The Drones - but that doesn't mean A Laughing Death In Meatspace doesn't get political - hell, with that title, how could it not! If anything, the welcome shift for Tropical Fuck Storm comes in the framing instead of the content outright, infusing it with a welcome boost of populism along with a boost of anarchic terror in the face of an overheating, decaying world, along with a lingering open question of how much he should even bother to engage with it. Right from 'You Let My Tyres Down' in its descriptions of relative normality you get the feeling that by describing them like this something seems deeply off, a tension ramped up even further by the mention of that elephant in the room on 'Antimatter Animals' - hell, for someone who just wants to die in ignominy and be forgotten, you can tell he's awfully bothered by someone actually standing for something, even if he has a point that nobody can truly see the lens in which the rest of the world perceives them. And that gets even more curdled and toxic on 'Chameleon Paint' in its naked contempt for those who never shut up about their cause especially when at least half of it might be sanctimonious bullshit that he know he'd cut down...but he's also starkly self-aware that by doing so he'd become part of the problem, and isn't his post-modern dismissal of their narrative a narrative in its own right, that he's not so different? 

And here's the thing: the protagonist of these songs is keenly aware there's some deeply unsettling things coming he can't quite comprehend, from Garry Kasparov losing his chess match to the computer Deep Blue and seeing the dangerous possibilities of emotionless technology replacing thought in humans on 'The Future Of History', or the post-apocalyptic vacation mirages on a Grecian island where he's content to bask in the sun but unnerved by how people never seem to want to dive to the depths anymore, or in the most stridently political track 'Soft Power', takes someone who has bought into the grand lie of paranoid, racist, rapacious American consumer culture and its most bulbous figurehead to the desiccated wasteland brought by his thoughtless actions and neglect of nuanced soft power. And while the framing is not sympathetic to that consumer, it is just empathetic enough to realize how thoroughly their lives could be ruined, and how even despite the damage caused they'll still revere that 'scarecrow', a brainless reminder of happier, emptier days. And again, this places Tropical Fuck Storm in a weird place and they know it, especially when so much of this conflict has been fought online, where the title track further highlights that feeling of loneliness where people are sacrificed on the altar of ideological purity - and while I always get antsy when songs take this position, the majority of their contempt is reserved for trolls who'd inflict that laughing death and sympathy is reserved for those in the right who will nevertheless eventually be torn off their pedestal, where forgiveness amidst the cleansing light is needed for the broader cause. And as 'Rubber Bullies' highlights, when you're facing an increasingly well-connected force of gentrification and totalitarianism where our protagonist has been lucky to escape unscathed... well, let's just say keeping the final line as 'where we going now' has rarely been this haunting.

So yeah, Tropical Fuck Storm easily deserve all the hype and this record only becomes more great with every single listen, the sort of intensely literate, genuinely unnerving record that might feel shaggy and chaotic but has the grizzled intensity to make it connect. For me, it's a solid 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation, especially if you're into the more nuanced, implacable, and fiercely relevant side of modern indie rock. And when it hits this hard... well, this is a tropical storm where you'll definitely want to see the eye. 

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