Photo: William Murray

Zachery Allan Starkey explores dark pop revelations and bottomless dancefloor chasms on his new record, FEAR CITY (BPM Premiere)

There’s a beautiful complication to the work of New York composer, musician, and producer Zachery Allan Starkey, a byzantine coupling of  synthetic pop reverberations and darkly melodic dancefloor environments. His music demands compulsory movement, with various external appendages flailing about in some wild abandon. Mashing together elements of techno, post-punk, Italo disco, and synthwave, he builds a revelatory musical atmosphere where the consequences of past experiences and a vast library of rhythmic influences collide and ricochet off one another in dramatic fashion.

Over the last handful of years, he’s released music under his given name, as well as under the guise of ZGRT, doling out spiky bouts of synth-pop that echo in darker corners of the genre than you might expect. He often aims for the club and discovers the joys of deeper investigations into the tangled world of pop experimentalism. Through records and various singles, he’s developed a considerable talent for arranging and rearranging the sounds which inspired him to create music in the first place. He also had the privilege of working with New York producers Lauren Flax and Gavilán Rayna Russom to found C//TY CLUB, one of New York City’s most revered and eclectic night spots.

His latest record, FEAR CITY (which is due out tomorrow via Deathtrip NYC), was composed, performed, produced, and arranged almost entirely by himself, and it features Starkey acting as both interpreter and revolutionary. Featuring a couple of collaborations with Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order — with the post-punk and dance rock visionary lending his prowess with synthesizers, guitars, drum programming, and various other production duties — the album is a jagged and propulsive exploration of synth-pop movements, electro-punk tenacity and the hedonistic affirmation of various techno soundscapes. And it’s in this blending of dark pop aesthetics that the connection between Starkey and Sumner becomes all too apparent. 

“When Zachery Allan Starkey first played me his album in its original inception, I was originally just going to put together a list of recommendations and constructive feedback,” explains Sumner. “I think I got a bit carried away on ‘Force’ as it was easier to illustrate what I meant by playing, rather than to write it down. I wanted to help Zachery by acting as a mirror for his music. I remember being a young artist just like Zachery, struggling both to learn my art, and to try and make a living out of the thing I had an all consuming passion for. Zachery has this fascination for music too.” 

After the brief opening atmospherics of “City Overture”, the record quickly delves into a neon-streaked world of grimy underground clubs and the prickly iridescence which always clings to those places. “XXX” is a synth-punk anthem, as comfortable in our reality as it would be soundtracking the dangerous worlds of Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell. Other tracks, such as “No Security” and “Fallout”, offer glimpses into industrial wastelands where the only thing holding society together is our collective musical experiences. Starkey possesses a preternatural ability to see the beauty beneath the grime and sludge, coaxing out some irresistible melodies and a certain lyrical wit from the surrounding gloom and shadows.

Sumner appears on the title track, with its synth percolations and odd musical detours, and on swirling electronic whirlwind “Force”, adding a scorched earth credibility to Starkey’s darkened dance-pop impulses. His presence is just another sign that the ripples he started with Joy Division and New Order will always find fertile ground to grow in the creativities of future generations. FEAR CITY is another sign of the relevance and necessity of these sounds. Where some artists settle for practiced imitation, Starkey opts to openly dismantle his influences and revel in the chaotic deconstruction he’s wrought.

“I spent the past two years composing and recording the FEAR CITY album,” says Starkey. “What started as an album about the intersection NYC nightlife and the scarily worsening economic situation for working people (especially those living in the margins and grey areas) has evolved into a real time document of urban fear and chaos in NYC, as we deal with the devastating economic, political, and heath fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. The album has continued to evolve right up to its release at the end of April 2020, hence the title of the final track, ‘Future Shock’.”

He continues: “While I composed the music for the album myself and played all of the instruments, it’s been a great privilege to collaborate with Bernard Sumner of New Order, who plays instruments and produces with me on two tracks, ‘Force’ and ‘Fear City’. Working with Bernard has been exciting, creative, fun, and eye opening, and he’s been a big part of the album from the start. Working with my recording and mixing engineer, Abe Seiferth, as well as my mastering engineer, Jon Chinn, has been a great joy. This is a dark and intense album…in my music, I always seek to confront and deal with uncomfortable aspects of the present. I refuse to give up, I insist on moving forward and living life on my own terms. I hope FEAR CITY will encourage the listener to the same, and to dance while doing so. Do you give up, or do you fight?”