With all this talk about "disintegrated pop", it’s worth noting that much of the United States’ economic power rests, or at least rested, on its invention of popular culture. Far superior to any propaganda machine before it, its ability to disseminate ideas and mediate cultural norms in the interests of its governing body, at the same time as turning it into a global export, is a stroke of genius. Artists like SETH and James Ferraro are just a couple of contemporary musical manifestations of its waning effects, perhaps as part of a growing awareness of it – beginning with “lo-fi” and “hypnogogia", a nostalgic look to that Golden Age of mass media and obscene wealth, the 80s. After all, it's the performers inhabiting that great northern land mass that really spearheaded said movements, and the very location of someone like Ferraro – moving between the two economic centres of New York and Los Angeles – speaks to his creative evolution as a direct reflection of these shifting social conditions.
In his early noise days with The Skaters, Ferraro established an indefinable anguish, channelled through the shrill agony of Mister Cabin and the ritual hell of ‘Receding Smokebath’. He then extrapolated on the source of that torment (as well as the term “hypnagogia”) with his landmark 2011 album ‘Far Side Virtual’; an itchy, unsettling soundtrack to hyper-consumerism using a weird and depthless sound palate of pixelated computer effects. After that, there was somewhat of a lull in conceptual bearing to his work, as Ferraro catapulted himself into the fatalistic hedonism and violent movement of electronic dance, along ‘SUSHI’ and the realisation that there was no helping a hopeless situation.
For ‘NYC, Hell 3:00AM’, Ferraro re-emerges with what he calls “a surreal psychological sculpture of American decay and confusion”. Revisiting the world of the conceptual, the album is littered with a collage of text-to-speech sound bytes (“sextape pixellation” says the dead-eyed simulation of a woman in Upper East Side Pussy and “boeing debris”, “AT&T” and “Tom Cruise” in Stuck 2), pitch-shifted emergency sirens and clips from live footage of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centres. “Everything must pass”, Ferraro mumbles over an off-tune and ambient wormhole of interrupted extraneous noise, reverse samples and dejected trap beats in Beautiful Jon K..
It’s his untreated, shaky voice and roughly assembled clutter of observations and sensations – across an intrusive simulated broken glass sample in City Smells or a xylophone in Irreplaceable – that expresses a similarly seductive precarity. In Cheek Bones, Ferraro’s own complicity in the self-destructing state of things becomes apparent as he moans, “I don’t want to get cancer, but these cigarettes give me cancer”. Smoking as the most explicit manifestation of the deadly effects of consumerism is reinforced over a slovenly, syncopated beat and fragmented, pitch-shifting howls as he asks, “who would die for you?”
The message might come across as a little obvious, gauche even, especially when Ferraro iterates “MTV” as the core of harmful trash culture in Irreplaceable, before closer Nushawn ends as the album began. In a repeated, automated voice message, “American violence” loops back to the album’s opener, Intro: “Money”, while one can’t help but wonder, "is that it?" Ferraro is known for being way ahead of his peers when it comes to identifying and representing shifts in sound and ideology through his music, but with ‘NYC, Hell 3:00AM’ it’s as if he’s run out of ideas. In all the laboured, familiar beats and creepy liquid ambience born from the urban underground, it looks as though he's either reflecting an inescapable shared reality, one that can’t be ignored and must be repeated, or that the rest of the world has finally caught up with him.
Hippos in Tanks released ‘NYC, HELL 3:00AM’ on the 15th October 2013.