One of the most divisive artists of the 21st century gears up to release his new album, striking a perfect balance between conceptualisation and sheer fun.
Even when channelling relatively innocuous music, be it bubblegum 80s TV soundtracks or pacifying CD-ROM startup screens, James Ferraro doesn’t usually make for an enjoyable listen. His music may be offensively repetitious, overloaded to the point of cacophony, or else completely lacking in any form of mastering. Or, more profoundly, it may emulate these familiar sounds so well that it becomes unlistenable, the moments of jarring offness that Ferraro sneaks in imbuing it with a terrible sense of the uncanny. The latter was certainly the case for Ferraro’s divisive, difficult ‘Far Side Virtual’, his last full-length album and my own introduction to his unique world. I loved ‘Far Side Virtual’ as an artistic statement, yet at the same time, I never wanted to listen to it again.
‘Far Side Virtual’ was an exploration of 21st century consumerist excess, described on these very (web)pages by Adam Harper as adopting the sounds of “techno-capitalist stock promotional music for the era of the personal computer and of bum-bags full of Apple devices”, sounds used at the advent of home computing to help us envision a technological utopia in the not-too-distant future. Track titles such as Starbucks, Dr. Seussism, And While Your Mac Is Sleeping extend this theme of digital hyperreality, imagining a world of corporate, ultra-branded convenience products – the Western world that we occupy today. The concept was laid bare from the beginning, and everything from the music to the track titles to the artwork set up the album as both a satire and a submission to this concept.
James Ferraro – Adventures in Green Foot Printing (from ‘Far Side Virtual’)
With this in mind, ‘Sushi’, his newest album, seems even harder to digest. Rather than continuing along the same thread established with ‘Far Side Virtual’, Ferraro’s intentions seem far less clear. The artwork is minimalistic, it did not come with an accompanying press release and the track titles are far less revealing than any of his past work – compared to the buzz surrounding his last album, ‘Sushi’ almost seems comical in its opaqueness. Given that the nature of Ferraro’s music is quite hard to appreciate on a purely sonic level, it feels essential to understand his intentions in order to form a critique of it, none of which are present. Or, to put it in far blunter terms: I have absolutely no idea what to make of this record.
James Ferraro – SO N2U
The album bears more resemblance to Ferraro’s Bebetune$ and BODYGUARD projects, two aliases adopted post-‘Far Side Virtual’ to release free zip file mixtapes, heavily indebted to both mainstream hip hop and R&B productions and the underground producers who ape these, resulting in a psychedelic copy-of-a-copy which was just as bewildering as it was intriguing. The intention of these two mixtapes was never really clear, straddling a line between pastiche and parody, and the same can be said for ‘Sushi’, seemingly a meditation on club culture. There are many familiar signifiers present, such as the heavy 808 low ends, shuffling hip hop beats, the odd gunshot noise and occasionally hi-hats and snares that seem to allude to trap, as well as track titles like Bootycall and Powder. There are also references to more 4/4 dance music on it, be it the loose, house-y piano stabs on Flamboyant, the bent synth pads of early Night Slugs releases on SO N2U or the use of chopped up and repitched R&B vocal samples all over the record, the intensely processed and unreal sounds acting as instruments themselves.
James Ferraro – Lovesick
But what these references equate to is uncertain. For an artist so heavily informed by his previous work, it seems necessary to dig for a concept behind it all, to dig for meaning where there may not be any. Ferraro will always explore the digital and capitalist world in his art, but it sometimes could be on a more abstract, unconscious level. You could easily assert that ‘Sushi’, as an album title, alludes to the ultimate food of the 21st century consumer, a foreign import from a land of functionality, as minimalistic yet stylish in its presentation as a MacBook – especially given Ferraro’s fascination with designer sushi in the past. You could equally say that it means nothing at all – in a recent interview with Dazed Digital, Ferraro expressed a desire to follow up ‘Far Side Virtual’ with something clubbier, and insisted that music writers “forget that this is music, or that I’m not always trying to be hyper-conceptual. That’s inherently who I am, but I enjoy making music for people to listen to. They can forget about the emotional side of it sometimes.” The end product could easily be ‘Sushi’, for beyond its initial dissonance, the album reveals itself to be very melodic and groove-focussed, one that bears a warped likeness to artists such as Hudson Mohawke, Nguzunguzu and Jam City, and one that is, unlikely as it seems, a very enjoyable listen.