by Henry Bruce-Jones
The other day a friend asked me, “Why do you only listen to ugly music?” In his defence, I was listening to one of the more improvisational tracks from Arca’s Blade Runner OST by way of Berghain, Xen. Yet, it still seemed to me an odd question considering some of the most important and influential records of the last couple of years (Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus; Kendrick’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City and Drake’s Take Care) could hardly be described as ‘easy-listening’, with pop production becoming more and more experimental and challenging, borrowing more and more from ‘underground’ music, and the legacies of each of these albums reaching further and further into both mainstream commercial music and independent releases.
Similarly, I’d be lying if I said that my favourite artists from this period (to add to those I have already mentioned); Death Grips, the reformed Swans, the aforementioned Arca, Evian Christ, Rustie and Hudson Mohawke, were not equally challenging and unconventional in their production. Any one of these artists’ music could arguably be described as ‘ugly’ or as bearing a certain grotesque aesthetic, be it Death Grips’ half-spat tales of decapitated prostitutes and male coat-hanger abortions, Hudson Mohawke’s maximal, obnoxious, border-line offensive production and Kanye West’s original creative decision for the cover of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to depict himself fucking a gryphon. It is therefore not hard to appreciate why my friend – a House and Minimal Techno obsessive – described the music I like to listen to as ‘ugly’. But despite how you may feel about this ‘ugliness’, it is undeniably alluring, and it definitely sells.
2014 has variously been described as “Post-Ringtone”, “The year of the body” and, my personal favourite, “The waking dream between Kanye albums”. Yet if we are to term this new wave of popular music as grotesque or misshapen, I would suggest it would be just as valid to describe this year as ‘The year of ugly’.
The best example of this might be Arca’s Xen, a patchwork of fractured beats, cacophonous piano lines and colossal walls of static noise. With Kanye West’s reputation of having a supernatural ear for musical trends, often dictating how much of the popular music of the preceding few years sounds with each album release, it is hardly surprising that West would enlist this producer du jour as ‘production consultant’ on the Frankenstein’s monster of noise that is Yeezus. The Venezuelan artist’s relationship with the grotesque can be traced back to 2012 and the beginning of much collaboration with housemate and graphic designer-cum-visual artist, Jesse Kanda. The elongated, warped and disfigured limbs depicted in the artwork for Arca’s EP’s Stretch 1 and Stretch 2, as well as the acid-tinged mindfuckery of the accompanying video to Arca’s &&&&& mix, depicting extreme close-ups of disembodied uvulas, strobe lighting and what can only be described as giant, rotting children break-dancing have a symbiotic relationship with the sonic disfigurement that is Arca’s calling card. This has been amplified more recently by the sexless, genderless, voluptuous monstrosity that is the graphic rendering of his alter-ego, ‘Xen’. Kanda is not only able to visually, perfectly capture Arca’s sound; he effectively creates an environment where this ‘ugliness’ is not only alluring but also erotic – less ugly, more fetishistic.
A similarly symbiotic visual and sonic aesthetic, as well as a certain element of fetish, can be found in the artists that make up the P.C. Music label, the source of both some of the most exciting and frankly ridiculous music of 2014. This is sex-music for video game characters, a soundtrack for bad ecstasy or bubble-gum-with-razorblades-in pop music – songs that are at once upbeat and catchy yet depict a weird and artificial world inhabited by Web-Cam porn actors and CGI architecture. Take label head A.G. Cook’s Beautiful, a song that begins with a heavenly chorus of chipmunk-voiced angels and the sounds of digital shell-casings hitting virtual concrete, coupled with an image of what looks like a gelatinous mass of melted pink pearls. Similarly, on Keri Baby, resident graphic designer and art-school oddity Hannah Diamond, whose Jeff Koons meets ‘The Sims’-style imagery provides the label with an instantly recognisable aesthetic, happily exclaims in a stuttering auto-tune addled school-girl chant: “Tell me if you want to see me play with my hair on a T.V.” This artificial sexuality is equal parts obnoxious and exciting, and whilst it may be a far cry from Arca and Jesse’s Kanda’s nightmarish vision, it is still as ‘ugly’.
However, it would be somewhat of a cop-out to claim that this allure of the ‘ugly’ is simply to do with sex; a grotesque appeal to human baseness and perversion. Often the music I have described is extremely beautiful, and conventionally so. In both Arca and P.C. Music, I would argue that there is at least 30 seconds of a song you could play to your mum without fear of embarrassment and/or an assessment of your mental health. I would suggest that the answer lies, as is so often the case, with Aphex Twin.
Richard D. James, A.K.A Blue Calx, Caustic Window, Power-Pill, AFX and Aphex Twin, is arguably the genesis of these acts, as well as the majority of contemporary electronic music listened to today. The distorted soundscapes of Xen would not be possible without the twisted synth manipulation of Come To Daddy and Windowlicker. In the same way, consider the similarities between both Arca and P.C. Music’s relationship with graphic design, and the collaboration between Aphex Twin and Chris Cunningham, the unofficial video artist for British ambient and electronica music. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, James addressed the current state of popular music: “The holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever or, even better, lots of different planets.”
Here lies the crux of why I think music that could be described as ‘unlistenable’, ‘strange’ or ‘ugly’ proves to be so alluring for me. These are artists that, however successfully, try to make music that sounds inhuman. By ignoring traditional concepts of beauty, by disregarding what sounds ‘good’, they are able to make music that is not only exciting, but also weirdly addictive. Listening to these artists for the first time could indeed be said to be like stumbling upon “the holy grail”, if a distorted one, made from pixels and body fluid, rather than gold.