Kuedo's mesmerising sonic science fiction combines Vangelis, Vivaldi and footwork with filmic vision, writes Adam Harper.
What does futuristic music sound like? Or to put it another way – is there a musical equivalent of science fiction? Possible answers to such questions have appeared ever since the middle of the twentieth century, when musical creativity became bound up with the kind of progressive technological development that forms one of sci-fi’s defining themes. Yet there’s a simpler association between music and sci-fi futures that’s forged during the audiovisual entertainment of films and TV, when androids, astronauts or aliens sync to the sounds of synthesisers. Kuedo’s new album ‘Severant’ provocatively explores the border zone between a uniquely futuristic music and one that merely reproduces those ageing images of the future.
It’s yet another example of the paradoxes of contemporary music that a record as unique as ‘Severant’ is equally very much ‘of its time’. Its process of imitating and mixing historically established musical signs as part of a ‘post-club’ or home-listening meditation is typical in today’s underground pop and dance, but the combination is new and intriguing. ‘Severant’ ably employs the rhythmic and timbral palette of the footwork style championed by its label Planet Mu (most recently on ‘Bangs and Works Vol. 2’) as a scaffolding that holds its classy 1980s synths and dignified, melancholy harmonisations firmly in place. In doing so it provides one more answer to the post-dubstep conundrum – before becoming Kuedo, Jamie Teasdale was a founder member of dubstep in the mid 2000s as one half of Vex’d.
There’s a significant sense in which the footwork percussive flavour is an early 2010s equivalent the rapid amen breaks of jungle that migrated into the post-club “intelligent dance music” (so-called) of the mid-1990s. That genre has often borrowed musical signs from club dance music in its ongoing search for a more complex significatory interplay that sometimes approaches the level of cultural commentary. Planet Mu have been here many times and in many forms, with ‘Severant’ a particularly strong example. Kuedo doesn’t merely reproduce footwork, however. Though he keeps many of the rhythms and the timbral palette of the Roland TR-808, he discards footwork’s use of rapid fire samples and high-tempo syncopated bass and sometimes even returns to the kind of half-step often used in Vex’d. What’s more, Kuedo’s lush synth orchestrations and harmonised melodic fragments are very unlike footwork’s unmitigated ghetto fixation on the (rhythmic) flow. One of ‘Severant’‘s own mutations of the footwork palette is on its hi-hat, which now ticks constantly like breakneck clockwork, periodically doubling in time and dividing up rhythmic space like graph paper underneath an architectural blueprint.
Rhythmic space is divided like graph paper underneath an architectural blueprint.
The more prominent element on ‘Severant’, though, is its synths. It looks back to a particular kind of 1980s synthesiser – not those of post-punk or synth-pop, but the glassy, sophisticated synths of high-end studios. Many have noted the similarity to Vangelis’s music of the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly to his soundtrack to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film classic Blade Runner. It does seem to be a huge influence: the leading voice on Ant City uses one of Vangelis’s favourite timbral settings, while Vectoral imitates the particular colours of his Blade Runner Blues. Flight Path even borrows the bass riff from the Blade Runner theme tune itself. Kuedo is wise not to compete too much with Vangelis’s legendary soundtrack, however, and Kuedo’s own voice is in there too, with well-placed and expressive melodic riffs in Whisper Fate and Scissors. Another potential influence here comes from Tron, and this year’s Tron Legacy – with its Daft Punk soundtrack – in particular. One of Kuedo’s more surprising ingredients is the flange effect that sweeps slowly up and down like the ‘light cycles’ of the franchise. The second half of Truth Flood uses a string-based baroque harmony reminiscent of Vivaldi that has much in common with Tron Legacy’s post-minimalist strings, augmented with synth, setting it to a percussion loop very similar to the one that kicks off Derezzed from Daft Punk’s soundtrack. ‘Severant’ certainly echoes the revival of the Tron universe as forbidding, high-tech and very, very cool, rather than as a campy 1980s pastiche, and accordingly the use of synths as po-faced signifiers of the robotic rather than an entirely retro Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode flashback.
Where does the human stand in all this grand artifice and baroque, performed emotion, amongst all these synthesised surfaces?
But it is these synths that make ‘Severant’ so compellingly evocative, recalling a very specific and very different time and place. For me it’s the kind of glamorously dehumanised 1980s that can still be read in the epic marble indoor architecture of the period. The album’s cover resembles a modernist sketch from 1920s Europe and its typeface looks back to that era’s art deco, but it could also be a yuppie appropriation of modernism from the 1980s – something blown up to twenty-feet tall as a frieze in a high-end department store or the reception area of an enormous office block. Hand in hand with Vangelis, exulting in ultra-reverb and ticking along with the cutting edge pace of footwork, it’s a clever and closely targeted retro future, one with challenging connotations: where does the human stand in all this grand artifice and baroque, performed emotion, amongst all these synthesised surfaces? Ridley Scott asked the same question with android replicants and dystopian cityscapes. In all this, Severant provides a more shadowy sibling for James Ferraro’s recent ‘Far Side Virtual’.
This also causes us to question the future as it pertains today rather than it did in the 1980s, of course, especially with footwork in the mix. Yet ‘Severant’ is more often an evocative album than a futuristic one. I find myself wishing that the future it comments on would feel more unfamiliar, more alien and surprising, instead of an image of one established thirty years ago. If this album were mistaken for something entirely futuristic, it would mean that ‘the future’ is just another historically established cultural sign within a closed symbolic economy, and not something open and unknown. Ironically, in this climate, something showing us ‘the future’ would show us nothing that was really new at all. ‘Severant’ should be applauded for its well-chosen and well-constructed investigation of some highly expressive and suggestive moments in music’s technological development – but will it encourage us to continue hunting for the future, or merely revel in its past?