By Robin Ogden
A double album is a rare, beautiful thing. Makeup And Vanity Set’s latest release just happens to be one, and I can’t think of a much better use of the format. Wilderness is the 10th full length offering from the artist, a very dense distillation of the musical ideas and narrative techniques explored in previous Makeup And Vanity Set albums and EPs, and the proper follow up to 2012’s full length 88:88. The double album also marks another venture with long term Makeup And Vanity Set collaborator, film director Joey Ciccoline, whose short film Eidolon is digitally bundled with the release.
I think for the purpose of this review it would be pointless, and most likely a disservice, to engage with Wilderness on a track by track basis, given the wealth of music on offer and its lesser seen double album status. There are however big thematic ideas running their course, and attuned innovative threads of nostalgia that hold the whole release together in so many ways. The album’s accompanying blurb cites the works of cyberpunk forefathers William Gibson and Stainsaw Lem as precursory, and places itself firmly in their locus. Science fiction is the order of the day, or perhaps rather the future.
Wilderness is an album concerned with life, technology and evolution. What’s especially wonderful is the number of collaborators appearing throughout the album, and how it feeds into this overall concept. I imagine, and would like to think, that most of these collaborations were facilitated and realised through the wonders of technology, and have always believed that collaborative efforts can chart marked evolution in the life of artists. The addition of four lead vocal tracks do not detract from its soundtrack mode, rather they elevate it to something much more. ‘Senses, Dynamics’ features the ethereal vocals of Big Black Delta, that soar over the thunderous live drums of Christian Williamson. The entire performance is completely complementary to Makeup And Vanity Set’s intricate synth work. It’s brilliantly organic. Similarly, ‘Remember’, featuring Raul Panther and Gambler Kirkdouglas of the Protomen, is an absolute triumph, with a pounding bassline and tight gated drums. If there’s an anthem in the Wilderness this is surely it: stunning and driven. For me though, the real vocal gem is Jasmin Kaset’s haunting and beautiful performance in ‘Hand In Hand’, which is perfectly placed amidst the reverb drenched arpeggio sequences.
Wilderness is punctuated by filmic narrative monologues that help tell its story from start to finish, and perpetuate its dark sci-fi mood. This is something Makeup And Vanity Set has used to great effect in previous releases, notably 88:88. Constructing the right atmosphere is aided by the use of non-synthetic sounds. Ideas from musique concréte and recurring aleatoric found sounds really aid in building the release’s overall ambiance, and balance the overall palette of sound. ‘Modification’ is a fantastic meeting point of electronic music and found sound elements, and the more experimental ‘Monomorph’, with pulsating bassline and whirring mechanisations, is a perfect example true synthesis, in every sense.
Though concerned with futurism, Wilderness equally seems to be looking backwards, an extended reminiscence and meditation on the past. This goes beyond lyrical and narrative content, especially with the track ‘Turing/Sequence’. Those familiar with Makeup And Vanity Set’s previous work will recognise the reprisal of the theme from the similarly named ‘Turing/Gone Dark’ from 2013’s EP 7.25.2148. This is so much more than a throwback indulgence: it’s a self acknowledgement of the album’s history, legacy and the artist’s evolution, and shares this with both long time listeners and invites newcomers to explore Makeup And Vanity Set’s discography. This really is what I meant by the album being a distillation. In a lot of ways Wilderness is a meta-album, an intense retrospective moving forward, and another progression in the artist’s metamorphosis.
There’s a measured dualism to every Makeup And Vanity Set release. Wilderness is both inimitably arty, bleak, dystopian, cinematographic, and simultaneously progressive, with popular sensibilities and big vocal hooks, a melting and meeting point for found sounds, live performance and synthesisers. It almost shouldn’t work on paper, but this release is beautifully realised, cohesive and wonderfully atmospheric, and, like most of Makeup And Vanity Set’s music, very much an audio visual experience. Makeup And Vanity Set has achieved what many set out to do and fail to realise. This is an extremely ambitious double album, and sets an exceptionally high standard for soundtrack synth music. Wilderness comes very, very highly recommended from Synthetix.FM and is available via the Telefuture bandcamp page here, as both limited edition double vinyl LP and digital download.