Album Review: Clear State – Walled City (Jeju Digital, 2017)

Jeju Digital is probably one of the most interesting musical projects to have come out of the Korean peninsula in recent years. The label, which specialises in vaporwave, mallsoft and various other kinds of post-internet electronica is run by an English expatriate in Korea, and releases music by artists scattered around the globe, but honestly the identities of the people behind Jeju Digital aren’t that important. What’s far more fascinating than the real-world biographies of artists like Clear State is the elaborate cyberpunk mythology that the label has constructed around itself. Within this musical mythos, “Jeju Digital” is the name of a near-future chaebol-turned-cyberpunk-megacorp, a vast conglomerate that controls everything and everything in Jeju Digital’s imagined dystopia, where Scientology has become the official global religion and the cutting edge of technology has achieved its inevitable apotheosis as the perfect vector of social control. There’s a narrative of sorts that emerges in the various Jeju Digital music and video releases, though a lot of it is deliberately opaque and unclear; some of the “story” takes place in the distant future, some in the recent past, and some of the releases are presented as pieces of the past re-interpreted and distorted by the Jeju Digital megacorp as part of their ongoing efforts to brainwash and stupefy the masses in order to crush any hope of dissent.

It’s heady stuff, and even if the music was sub-par the label would be interesting based purely on the merits of its worldbuilding and storytelling. Fortunately, that’s not the case – the music stands strong on it’s own merits, not just as a medium for another narrative to be told. This is very evident in the case of Walled City. The work of a UK-born, New York-based artist going by the name of Clear State (which is in itself a term in Scientology referring to one of the mental states achievable through the practice of dianetics – a state free of the trauma of past lives), Walled City presents listeners with a rich and evocative musical journey, influenced by vaporwave but not beholden to it and produced almost entirely via modular synthesis.

The album opener, “Disconnection”, is a pretty but unremarkable work of ambient vaporwave, pairing swirls of retro synth with a simple muffled beat. Things take a turn for the darker on the next track, however; entitled “Engrams” – a Scientology term for the suppressed memory of a traumatic event occurring in a past life – it combines a menacing, growling bassline with fragile pads that sound as if they’re beginning to flake away at the edges and a downcast, minor-key synth melody. The breakbeat that propels the latter half of the track forward pushes “Engrams” into something approaching drum and bass territory, and the net effect of all of this is intensely evocative, bringing to mind the image of high-tech police helicopters gliding over a neon-drenched city. It’s an early high point, and to my ears one of the best tracks on the album. It’s followed by “Freewinds”, a track that sounds like exactly that – digital wind gusting through the streets of a virtual city. The faint hint of a melodic hook flickers in and out of hearing, periodically punctuated by the dull boom of a kick drum, like an explosion in a far-off place sampled from a late night news channel.

Technological Singularity uses robotic vocal snippets to explicitly state Walled City’s thematic concerns.

With the fourth track, “Technological Singularity”, Walled City’s concept album ambitions are a little more explicitly expressed. It’s essentially a spoken word piece; plastic arpeggios and kamikaze dives of bass provide a sonic backdrop for a robotic female voice as it describes the album’s sci-fi setting to the listener, a dystopian post-Singularity world in which artificial intelligence has come to dominate and human beings find themselves “governed, policed and judged by… disembodied agents of the post-human era”. Things seem bleak, until a second, male-sounding mechanical voice begins intoning a message of resistance, declaring that “now is the advent of that human renaissance”.

The next track, “Saturatas”, takes the album in a more ambient direction. The sound of what could as easily be the crackle of a forest fire as it could be the soft fall of rain is punctuated by bright constellations of synthetic melody, all anchored to earth by the warm rumble of analogue bass. “Type 209”, by contrast, is far more ominous. Swells of wailing synth desperately struggle to escape the track’s orbit before crashing back down into the sonic darkness below, overwhelmed by their own gravity; diamond-edged arpeggios and what sounds like a 90’s anthemic trance lead muffled by a fog of codeine slice what’s left of them into slivers. The whole thing feels very reminiscent of Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner soundtrack, and is definitely another high point in the album.

Track 7, “Maintenance of Order”, features the return of the robotic voices of “Technological Singularity”, and initially feels like a reprise of sort, with its synths and arpeggios feeling cut from the same cloth. However, it quickly sets itself apart from its predecessor when the percussion kicks in, turning the track into a retrowave groove given a sense of energy and movement by it’s muscular bassline, punchy drums and sharp claps. The snatches of intoned dialogue – “consumption drives productivity”, “punishable by imprisonment”, “the leadership of our nation” – is a lot less clear, this time overwhelmed by, rather than scaffolded by, the sounds enveloping it; a metaphor, maybe, for how meaning is so easily lost in the endless flood of information-consumption that we in the present time find ourselves trapped within.

Title track Walled City is a nine minute electronic odyssey.

There’s a brief, 2 minute interlude – “Simulated Bliss”, whose cybernetic parrot chattering could almost pass for a foray into noise music – before the voices return again, even more blurred and degraded than before, in “Restimulation”. Hollow, mournful tones form the backdrop to a series of ominous sentences “they are trying to do this in the name of security” being one that I found especially chilling – that feel as if they’re fading from hearing before the brain has even had time to process them. The overall impression is of a machine intelligence gradually dissolving, like HAL singing “Daisy, Daisy” as Dave pulls out his memory tapes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then there’s another ambient interlude of sorts, albeit a much longer one – “Rotating”, which catapults the listener away from cyberpunk streets and virtual concentration camps and out into the depths of space – before the album reaches its climactic point, titular track “Walled City”. It’s a massive piece – nine and half minutes long – that pairs more rain sounds and piercing peals of vintage-sounding synth with a deep bass pulse that, if sped up a bit, wouldn’t feel out of place in thumping dark techno track. The various sonic elements slowly come together to form a crystalline, infectious melody, while a vocoded voice intones indecipherable subliminal messages and yet another frantic arpeggio ramps up the sense of sonic drama. Finally, the album closes with “Pulses”, whose synthetic chords sound almost like violins and whose foundation of grainy static threatens to crumble at any moment, melting away as a police siren wails in the deep distance.

Overall, Walled City is a very strong album. I found it really rewarded repeat listening – each time I listened to it (generally while on the subway somewhere around Seoul; it made for great travel music) I found some new detail or flourish I hadn’t noticed before. I’ll confess I wasn’t the biggest fan of the spoken word tracks; they were maybe a bit too heavy-handed and on the nose for my liking, but I understand what Clear State was trying to do with them and why they were included, within the context of the album and in context of the Jeju Digital mythos as a whole. Vaporwave and it’s dozens of related sub-genres might have more than a few detractors, and some of those detractors may have some valid points, but as Walled City demonstrates it’s still a genre within which there’s a lot of room for creativity. I’m looking forward to diving deeper into the Jeju Digital back catalogue; there’ll definitely be more reviews of this label’s output coming soon.

Walled City is available for purchase over on Jeju Digital’s Bandcamp

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