Society has a constant built-in fail safe within its dichotomy. It goes like this: either you are assimilating into the suggested norms of its behavioural structures or you choose to actively subvert its predetermined models and systems. Sounds like a fairly decent deal – but the choice is a simulation. The very act of disobedience is one already anticipated from within the system and included within the equation. That’s why alternative forms of expression, behaviour or lifestyle are quickly embraced by companies and societally presented in a sanitized manner that ultimately appeals to larger masses, transforming subversive ideas into nothing more than an apolitical aesthetic. The revolution becomes commodified and makes money for the oppressors, all the while the original movement and spirit is slowly dissolving. And hey, if the subversive idea or action is aggressive enough, it’s deemed unacceptable and you’re deemed a terrorist and exorcised from society.
Sounds depressing – what’s left if there’s no free will and we’re methodically falling for conditions outside of our power? Well, it’s the space between things. It’s the tension of existing in a constant state of division that grapples with factors of the impossible. We can’t imagine colours that haven’t been introduced to us, just as it’s hard to establish words for feelings we know that lack a descriptor. If we choose to be indistinguishable, confusing and contradictory, depriving the outside of any possible classifier, we can truly taste freedom and find something larger than our ego.
NYC band Model/Actriz have chosen this uneasy path forward. Together with Gilla Band, Mandy Indiana and other related bands, they’re part of a so far nameless contemporary genre that many critics have deemed a blend of industrial, post-punk or noise rock. In reality, it’s Liminal Futurism: a style where instruments reproduce the rhythmically clanking sound of machinery, bursts of violent noise compete with melodies and abstract images of physical exhaustion demarcate a counter-position to the transhumanism of Hyperpop.
Thematically, the protagonists conjure images of transitory states and places, contrary to the nationalist centered Futurism of the 20th century. Instead of militarism, Mandy, Indiana concentrated on dream pools in their video for “Injury Detail”, and defying the glory hymns on technological progress, Gilla Band projected the sterile horror of utilitarian capitalism on Most Normal. Model/Actriz expand this artistic perspective on – you might have guessed it from the dildo on the cover – sexuality, clearly hitting a nerve and becoming the act of the hour: the vinyl of debut album Dogsbody sold out almost immediately.
To understand the full effect of their magnetism is only possible by exploring the machinations of band dynamics. Vocalist Cole Haden is openly gay, presenting himself as a moustached diva during live shows, indulging in theatric performance art. Speaking to Pitchfork, Haden mentions Lady Gaga and Marina Abramovic as influences on his own sense of personality – an ironic twist, considering that both have commodified their own spectre to garner mainstream attention. I do appreciate Abramovic’s stark later work, but performances like her minute of silence at the MoMA are ultimately directed at a bourgeois audience that enters the space with the pre-conception of being emotionally shattered by presence of Abramovic alone. Does our reception of her meeting with former partner Ulay change when we are told she was aware of his attendance that day? How do we understand Lady Gaga when we observe the contradictory statements she’s made over the years? In other words: there’s an air of inauthenticity that is directly tied to performativity. And it’s easy to see how Haden’s pained tone, related in emotionality to Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, could be read as overtly expressive or strained art-schoolism.
But then he is backed by the trio of Jack Wetmore (guitar), Ruben Radlauer (drums) and Aaron Shapiro (bass). Musically, these three summon a muscular resurrection of no wave legends Mars; a violent onslaught of mercilessly slashing guitar tones, fast paced disco beats and domineering bass rhythms. It contrasts the hyper-sensitive delivery and queer body-aesthetics of Haden with the macho violence of Big Black and euphoria of The Rapture – but not quite.
With Haden’s starkly poetic lyrics and borderline crazed delivery comes a counter-position to the harsh music, creating a unique tension that no other group from the American post-no wave scene generated. “Mosquito” fully displays this uneasiness, as Haden chants the mantra “I want this life”, before fully delving into challenging the ensuing noise with descriptions of hedonistic abandon: “Blushed and brilliant / Everything is searing through my veins now / Frothed milk, honey butter in my / Fortified cherry reduction / Over cakes, après-dîner / Cheers to engraved, heirloom, crystalline stemware / With a body count higher than a mosquito.”
Haden never lets go of uneasy wrestling with his libido: this album fucks! “Crossing Guard” and “Slate” interconnect lyrically and musically and become one blistering unit of dopamine haze: “Pull thе weight from under me / And the shadow I throw / Strobing against the wall / Boy, what’s wrong with you? / Go ahead and grind me into a pearl”. The song traces the experiences of promiscuity, as two guitar chords swing back and forth and the protagonist asks to be handed over to more and more “passengers”, finally settling on the open ended mantra “Oh, it feels like…”, which “Slate” picks up with its first line: “Like pressure, and it’s bleeding over.” “Slate” is the album’s most vulgar and viral moment, a love song that describes adoration as a philosophy or mental illness: “There’s something about when we embrace / Like throwing a voice into a well / And how deep my love goes / I’m still waiting for an echo here, but I know / When I walk, it’s your way / When I breathe, it’s your name”. The song climaxes, literally, in a dissolution of identity that can also be read as masturbation and orgasm: “When I come upon myself meeting eye to eye do I do I belong to him”. As the guitars become a heavy, flesh obliterating locomotive, Haden yelps “And then it’s bleeding over / Onto my jaw / Onto my neck / Onto the floor / It pours out of my hands / It seeps into the grass / It’s running through the drains / It’s swallowing the sun”.
The tension explodes all over the B-side of Dogsbody. “Pure Mode”, which – ironically – has the most “SLAY, KWEEN” pop-centered emancipatory tone, including the glorious chorus “Oh bitch I might enter into my pure mode”, recounting a moment of pure submersion of “penetration” – of walls, of skin, of bodies, of souls. “Maria” twists the idea of becoming the chosen mother of Christ to a queer rejection anthem: “I collect the dew falling from his chest / I collect all the thorns wrapped around his quietness / I wish he would remove the blade from my neck / I know he waits for me to do it myself when he / Holds me with eyes that sing I am not the man for him”. The track ends on a vile, pummeling beat that recalls the opening salvo of Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self-Destruct”, illustrating male self-hatred perfectly. “Amaranth” is nothing short of frightening as it dives in and out of Noise to quasi-religious imagery: “I remember pacing blank ground / I remember thorns shredding my palms / I want to see the petals stagger onto me / See my body carried, splintering / And I remember scorching it all”. Haden’s protagonist swings between the extremes of the Messiah and the Antichrist, diving into mystical symbolism and profane fucking, historical allusions and the horrors of penetrating flesh. It’s borderline JG Ballard in places.
And there’s an insecurity within the protagonist, which rears its face during the most pained yelps, but especially in the three solemn ballads of the album. “Divers” introduces the mortifying chorus “I seem to find it, but not within myself”, followed by drum strikes speeding up, resembling a bouncing ball slowly being pulled back to ground by gravity. “Sleepless” describes the action of drawing messed up corpses from a lake and contrasts it with the sight of a sleeping lover: “Blush rolled on the windowpane / And dried in the concrete / A coarse light in your eye cuts / Through your arms folded like pleats / The light hung in pieces, as flesh / Caught torn with jagged edges”. The only moment of respiring levity comes with closer “Sun In”, a tender, gentle echo of R.E.M.’s “Find the River”: “The city put itself together / Today I went so far across it / Passing through the places we went / I followed them to the river’s edge / Colors held there overlong / Rusted over signs we painted / I turn to submit the record / I can get back now from two years ago.”
Dogsbody has the motion of a journey, from self-abandon and the wish for annihilation to acceptance and love: waking up with the head of a definitive lover on your chest and dawn: “So bright with the sun in my eyes”. But then, something happens: the last few notes of the album echo back, return to the very first sound of the album as it rotates back to its beginning automatically, to “Donkey Show”’s opening lines: “I walk the beach, I walk the Strand / Over the night, over the dam / Head rotating, looking for a season / To turn a desert into ivy around him / Everyday, everyday the sun turns slowly over me”. The journey out of the night returns back into the night, as Haden growls threateningly: “Heaven can’t erase the blackness from my heart […] / Oh, you don’t have to try to be gentle / Do it the way you feel right now / I know it’s hard, I feel you rise to the occasion / In the black light you know I’m shining for you here”.
In these moments, the crushing reality of the album’s vortex of annihilation and self-mutilation comes into full view. The tension between sex and violence, blood and sperm, lust and love forms an elliptical vortex of desperate heartbeats and toxic declarations. A neverending maelstrom the size of Hubert Selby Jr.’s “The Room” and Dennis Cooper’s monthly listing of callboy forum posts, Dogsbody chronicles experiences on the outer fringes of society’s gaze, a mind on the brink of madness, caked by a voice flirting with mysticism and malevolent luciferian delusions. It’s nakedly authentic and bleeding, self-cannibalizing music that drips into veins like an alien drug. It describes sexual interaction as a liminal space and imagines the world as a Futurist pandemonium. It’s as much an X-rated update to Bloc Party’s more urban minded Silent Alarm as Last House on Dead End Street was the consequential hardcore-next step after Last House on the Left. If that frightens you: good, it should! There’s nobody to hold your hand or sing you lullabies. The world needs more music like this, and by god, we have to pray the tension at the core of this wild fourpiece won’t devour them.