James Ferraro's dizzying satire on the aural landscape of our digital vistas dazzled Ruth Saxelby this year.
‘Far Side Virtual’ was never meant to be an album. James Ferraro’s original plan had been to release the 16 tracks as ringtones. It would’ve been the most logical format for Ferraro’s latest excavation of popular culture, this time focused on digital omnipotence; the ringtone being the ultimate pastiche of music, created for the most significant of modern technologies, purchased to project an idealised self-image back at society. In the end, logistics and finances put paid to that idea and ‘Far Side Virtual’ was released in the more practical formats of MP3 and vinyl. However, it’s enough to simply know they were conceived of as ringtones: seed planted, it’s a feeling that vibrates throughout the album. That our digital world is addictive and overwhelming is not a new statement but nothing has so artfully or thrillingly articulated that curious feeling of sinister delight like ‘Far Side Virtual’. An ambitious, playful and genuinely exciting album, it’s without doubt one of the best released this year.
Using painstakingly crafted simulacrums of familiar digital tones and text-to-speech synthesised spoken word, Ferraro created 16 short symphonies that present themselves in a different light with every listen. On first hearing, there’s the cascading thrill of surprise and recognition. Later comes discomfort and agitation – it’s just too much. And then later still, once the cleverness of the contents has stopped distracting, an admiration for the beauty of the form – tracks like Earth Minutes and Sonar Panel Smile revealed as micro slices of contemporary classical composition. Throughout, however, the humour remains: Gordon Ramsey gets a namecheck on Palm Trees, Wi Fi and Dream Sushi for instance, along with a shoutout to Richard Branson’s avatar.
Celebrity, convenience and limitless choice are the three cornerstones of our digital lifestyle that converge on ‘Far Side Virtual’. Ferraro has said many times that he intended it to be a 21st century still life, and, as with any modern portrait, the airbrush plays a crucial role. The result is self-consciously upbeat and desperate to please, recalling copywritten lines designed to lend a human element to global corporations, like Google’s “Oops” when they can’t find a page.
Yet for all his parodying, Ferraro is not resistant to the scene he creates. In fact, quite the opposite: he is a man enamored with the world around him. Everything is fair game for a closer questioning look with a sideways smile. Both ludicrous and legitimate, ‘Far Side Virtual’ neither celebrates nor critiques the internet’s reign but simply observes it with deep fascination. Andy Warhol style, it reflects the ambiguity of consumer culture in the digital age back at us with a Pixar-animated wink.