After two amazing, although tantalizingly short albums in the past five years (2014's Estuary English and 2015's Dollhouse Songs), the Consumer Electronics trio lineup of founder Philip Best, Sarah Fr√∂elich, and Russell Haswell have decided to go all out on this hour long, double record masterpiece. Turning the thematic focus from the bleakness of austerity, pre-Brexit United Kingdom to the bleakness and violence of Donald Trump's America (where Best and Fr√∂elich emigrated before the recording of this record), Airless Space is another work of fragmented, destroyed electronics and forceful, violent vocals. Besides how strongly it stands as an individual work of art, Airless Space also makes it abundantly clear how much CE has evolved since beginning as a teenaged Best with a shortwave radio, a microphone, and a lot of annoyed people around him.
The title of the album draws inspiration from the 1998 short story collection Airless Spaces, by second wave/early radical feminist Shulamith Firestone.The collection was inspired by her time spent involuntarily confined to a psychiatric hospital later in life, shaped by autobiographical elements from her experiences beforehand.The book encapsulated the ills of American society:lack of mental health resources, poverty, social marginalization, and lack of available resources that are still problematic today.This, the ever increasing class divide, rampant misogyny and racism, and just a general unpleasant state of the world make for perfect themes for this always challenging band to tackle.
One notable difference from some of the recent work is the increased role Fr√∂elich has taken on vocals, with her leading most of the nine songs on this record.While her shouting, barked delivery is consistent with what Best has been doing since his latter Whitehouse days, the voice is clearly her own on here.Besides her natural delivery, production work, such as the vocoding on "Body Mistakes" give an additional layer, eventually dissolving her words into a harsh burst of noise.I cannot help but feel that, with her increased role in the band, flirtations with conventional music, and socially critical lyrical content ("Well I see it like this/Men are like apes at sunset/Are you nervous?/You were warned in advance" by Best on "Carnage Mechanics") that the trio are further raising the middle finger to the power electronics bros that have followed Best for decades without ever fully understanding what he was doing and now criticizing latter day CE behind the anonymity of social media.
Although Best has taken a step back, his appearances on the microphone are among his greatest.His spoken word narration of "Carnage Mechanics" is subtle, yet emotionally charged and extremely harrowing from beginning to end.Subtle is not usually a term I would apply to his vocal style, however, and "Locust" is the antithesis of that:a screaming, acid throated rant that may be among the most intense he has ever delivered, and with Fr√∂elich‚Äòs additions and a grinding wall of distorted noise, it is as heavy as anything CE has done since his youthful excursions of the 1980s.
The non-vocal elements of Airless Space are consistent with what the trio has done in recent years:largely thin, broken synthetic beats and sputtering noise bursts arranged into erratic pseudorhythms.With some exceptions, the arrangements are that of brutally deconstructed dance music:the thin kickdrum of "Body Mistakes", the skittering high hat of "Out of It" and cheap snares of "Play Therapy" are all clearly signifiers of electronic music, but with a slightly perverted, deconstructed sensibility to them.It is in the unconventional sequencing and structures that these fairly normal sounds become even more abrasive and uncomfortable.Rather than locking into any semblance of conventional rhythm, the placements of sounds become distressing at best.Even the almost danceable rhythm of the lengthy "Murder of JJ" is mangled by white noise spurts and vocals so that any sort of stability is forcefully removed.
While Philip Best's solo incarnation of Consumer Electronics was consistently amazing during its inception and sporadic releases in the 1990s and 2000s, the recent work with Sarah Fr√∂elich and Russell Haswell has given the project an entirely new life.The varied sonic palette, the more socially conscious lyrical content, and the unrelentingly harsh vocal delivery makes for an intense, utterly unique record that once again proves intensity and disturbing sounds in harsher style do not have to be simple antisocial provocation.Best and Fr√∂elich have been quite busy with their Amphetamine Sulphate publishing company recently and as great as their work there has been, I hope that CE does not fall by the wayside given how each recent record has been more astonishing than the last.