- The music is Lee Gamble's best yet. But does the concept get in the way?
- I have an admission to make. I'm hesitant to talk about the concept behind Lee Gamble's new EP. I'm not jazzed about this fact. Gamble is, quite rightly, considered a key artist in what Simon Reynolds recently called "conceptronica," a loosely connected wave of experimental electronic music that responds to politics, society and culture, and finds its largest audiences at mixed-medium festivals in Europe and North America. He's released a string of fantastic albums—exploratory works that look at rave and post-rave thrills through an educated lens but never lose an innate sense of emotion or immediacy. The music on Exhaust, the second of an EP trilogy for Hyperdub, is frequently excellent, Gamble's highest-energy refraction of club music tropes so far, which follows a more melodically driven first part. This time, though, the words have come to seem like an impediment, something standing between me and the music.
Exhaust is part of a wider series named Flush Real Pharynx, a "sonic documentary" that explores the "semioblizt," a term coined by the late writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher that refers to "the aggressive onslaught of visual & sonic stimuli of contemporary cities & virtual spaces," to use the release text's phrasing. For me, things start to seem questionable later in the text with mention of the "psychedelic high street" and the idea that the record engages with a world that is "well and truly with us right now."
If claims are being made on a collective experience of contemporary capitalism, they're essentially being made on a collective experience of urbanite Westerners. Is there anything in these slick, hyperkinectic dance beats that reflects the lived reality of being in a UK city in 2019? Or most people's daily navigation of digital spaces? Some artistic license should of course be granted. But I'd argue that, outside of Gamble's narrow subjective perspective, no, there isn't much. With the utmost respect to, well, virtually everyone who lives in UK cities, the truth of being out there in the world feels far, far more ordinary than this project makes it seem. (Which is to say nothing of the sad, slow decline of many urban areas and their attendant communities due to, among many other factors, long-term economic policies.)
The engagement with advertising here is also a bit unfortunate. The record opens with shattering glass, a stirring string line and a sample of a man with an English accent asking us to "look around; we sell cosmetics for one pound." Later, on "Naja," a robotised woman promises "energy, clear-mindedness, composure and confidence" via whatever she's hawking. A delicate, ASMR-style voice on "Shards" is "so excited to help you pick out your next luxury vehicle." These kinds of critiques centred on the dull inhumanity of consumerism are a very, very well-worn theme found in many forms of art and entertainment that were done to death a few years ago within vaporwave and its related scenes. Given Gamble's credentials, some more original thinking could have been expected, particularly when the release text later references "a high rise overlooking the Ballardian motion-sculpture of a collapsing motorway system," a slightly tired and nonsensical dystopian allusion.
For Gamble, the semioblizt means rapid movement, explosive directional changes and hostile (but thrilling) grabs for attention. "Envenom," "Naja" "Switches" and "Shards" have plenty of this, and I'd count them among the very best music he's written. "Envenom" is a colossal soundscape, followed by a tricky broken-beat mutation, followed by an IDM freakout, followed by techno rage-a-thon. An entire track based on any of these sections would still have been killer. "Shards" is similarly episodic, hitting an apex with a sped-up ragga MC and a barrage of kick drums that would tear up the dance floor at a festival like Unsound. The EP closes borderline blissfully with "Saccades," where the affecting chords Gamble writes so effortlessly meet the jungle snares that seem embedded in his artistic DNA.
Given the strength of most the record, an understandable response to all of this might be, "C'mon mate, why'd you get so caught up in the text?" I totally get that. The thing is, Gamble has himself called for the electronic music community to engage on a level beyond straight pleasure-seeking, to politically connect and, essentially, seek truth. It's that last part I'm unsure about. The ideas underpinning Exhaust seem like an artistically convenient distortion of everyday reality.