The concept? It's complicated. But the music—an upfront mix of noise, ambient and technoid forms—is hugely enjoyable.
Simon Reynolds raised a few eyebrows recently when he coined the term "conceptronica" to argue that electronic music has become too reliant on "forbiddingly theoretical" explanations. He missed the mark for several reasons—not least because readers were traumatised by his attempted revival of the "tronica" suffix—but his argument is a reminder that we should hold musicians to their word about their artistic intentions, even if that word has 17 syllables. Can an album of abstract electronic music really claim to be "about" the Anthropocene or the ideas of Gilles Deleuze? Are the tunes merely window-dressing for a pamphlet of ideas? Or is there something within the music itself that truly captures those concepts, abstract as they may be?
A Fossil Begins To Bray is a record about "absence," Mao has said. In particular, she's interested in "the power of absence as neither a lack or deficit, but as a quiet, indeterminable force to cultivate in this time of looming and unrelenting techno-fascism." Assuming that "techno-fascism" refers to the creeping authoritarian control of every aspect of our lives as delivered by technology (surveillance, social media, data mining, election-fixing and so on), then Mao seems to be imploring us to escape the system by retreating into anonymity. Deleting your account becomes an act of resistance rather than simply a disappearance. Your absence thwarts the technocracy whose existence depends on your data. That's the essay, then—so what about the music?
Tougher and grislier than last year's Pure Expenditure, A Fossil Begins To Bray harnesses the extremes of electronic noise while remaining tightly controlled. After the album opens almost symphonically with a cloud of soaring synths on "A Desire, Nameles," we're soon carried off by a stream of black lava, assailed by percussion that sounds like videogame gunfire. This is a space of violent confrontation, a fight that won't be won easily. But absence? That's not so easily communicated. How can absence be represented without falling silent? (Arguably, John Cage opened and closed the book on the topic in 1952 with "4'33".") If we're looking for a musical metaphor, it could be in the spine-crushing wallop of the drums on "Fabrication Of Silence," where the empty space they leave behind feels like a footprint.
But perhaps what Mao is trying to communicate, even as the record slinks into tunnelling technoid mode—as in the thrilling cave descent of "Akoluthic Phase"—is that there's a war going on out here. Only the hardest, heaviest movements will do. With a controlled ferocity, drum patterns turn into chants, like a wordless haka. Meanwhile, track titles seem primed to send listeners on a trail of discovery, referencing the brain's capacity for remembering sensations ("Akoluthic Phase") and paranormal dreams in Ursula K Le Guin novels ("Iahklu").
Mao's confrontational stance isn't surprising for someone who grew up writing zines about West Coast punk bands, then became part of New York's messy, maximalist underbelly when Black Dice and Gang Gang Dance were putting a Technicolor spin on lo-fi noise. But with A Fossil Begins To Bray, Mao sounds utterly assured in her confrontation. In interviews, she has spoken of the need to "deconstruct our patterns of thinking" and break away from the "consumptive patterns" that leave us all enervated and depressed. Through the self-constructed world of modular synthesis, Mao has designed and mastered her own language—one that the techno-fascists can't decode.