Excellent Chris & Cosey-esque techno inspired by the writer Ursula K. Le Guin.
Her new album, The Envoy, is pitched as an attempt to right those critical oversights at a time when her style of analogue synthesis is more widely embraced. But The Envoy is more explicitly presented as a rumination on gender identity inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel, The Left Hand Of Darkness. The book depicts a planet populated by an ambisexual species, viewed through the eyes of a human envoy seeking to bridge the vast cultural gap this biological difference presents. The novel was visionary, and continues to be relevant as understanding and exploration around gender fluidity continues to blossom.
The Envoy is mostly instrumental, making much of the musical messaging interpretive. The stark exception comes via Cosey Fanni Tutti's narration on "Kemmer" (the monthly period of sexual receptiveness for Gethenians in the novel, where they assume male or female characteristics without conscious preference). Tutti's own exploration of sexuality throughout her career makes her a perfect conduit for Russom's lyrics, and she delivers the words with a sensuous quality as she describes "the tensions between my mother bone, my father stone." Over a palpitating arpeggio and artfully sculpted noise, it's a compelling gateway into an album of bold, singular pieces loaded with imagery.
The Envoy is often full of tension, as heard on "Strength Out Of The Dark" and "I Bleed I Weep I Sweat." But the presence of the legendary NYC avant-garde figure Peter Zummo throw this feeling in the sharpest relief. As a renowned trombone player, Zummo's brass arrangement to "Discipline Of Presence" sounds wholly distinct from Russom's control voltages, yet the microtonal drones of the brass meld naturally into the track's discord, at once celebrating difference and overcoming them in pursuit of a more interesting whole.
The album has a good chance of being better understood on its release than The Days Of Mars. Russom's brand of analogue synthesis—gutsy strokes rich in harmonics and accompanied by noise—is much less of an anomaly than it once was. It's worth noting the album has been released by Not Waving's label, Ecstatic, a haven for idiosyncratic artists with similar production tendencies. There's no in-house style, but Russom is in good company among other artists doing vibrant things with vintage gear.
By so intrinsically folding Le Guin's novel into this album, Russom widens the impact of her central idea. Conceptual records like this, where notions of being transgender are creatively framed and expressed, can encourage further reading and more empathy. It's a step towards a better understanding—the same thing Le Guin's envoy was striving towards and that Russom is exploring. The album doesn't draw definitive answers. But asking some questions and framing some thinking can be helpful in its own way.