The warping of human vocals in music production has been going on since the ‘60s, but it has seen increased popularity and creativity as recording technology has developed. The chopped-and-screwed style pioneered in the ‘90s Houston hip-hop scene is a style of production whose essence was in the treacly haze of its vocals, slowed-down and spliced. Electronic music has increasingly dabbled in the manipulation of voice too, from the up-shifted mania of rave and happy hardcore to the ambient looping of minimal techno. Dumb Flesh, the latest album from Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power as Blanck Mass, is a huge leap forward in the art of vocal manipulation. This is not to say that Power has necessarily innovated a style, more that he has looked at these techniques beyond their aesthetic appeal and used them to engage with the concept of physical humanity from a unique and beautiful vantage point.
No words can be heard on this record: Power strips voice back to its fundamentals, assembling the pieces into new shapes that unsettle and move in their occupation of the space between the known and unknown. Accompanying the songs in the manner of conventional singers, these disembodied voices take on a level of personality uncommon to music such as this, but in absence of any lyrical cues their subject turns in on their very nature as human: the voice becomes animal cry, becomes instrument, then becomes mere sound. This stripping back of significance is articulated by Power as a commentary on our frailty as organisms: “We are at the mercy of our genetic heritage every day. No matter how intelligent we are compared to other life forms, we’re still made up of the same building blocks and things can go very wrong.” The sounds that these vocal building blocks are twisted into feel like expressions of humanity gone wrong: they mutate, spreading in cloned loops. It is the sound of the human spirit reduced to its physical elements, and although beauty is here it is an alien beauty, one from which we are estranged.
To those familiar with Power’s work with Fuck Buttons, the instrumental mass of this album will be reassuringly familiar. The same propulsive rhythm drives it, and there are a few subtle moments of déjà vu when one synth tone or other recalls the band’s distinctive palette. It would be a mistake to say that this could be a Fuck Buttons album, though, as we have heard nothing like these tracks in any of the duo’s records. Dumb Flesh has the atmosphere of The Field and the warped textures of Vessel, with the unmistakeable grandeur of Power’s past work as mortar: the resulting sound is at once compulsively danceable, unsettling and beautiful.
We hear the two main poles of Dumb Flesh’s sound within its first ten minutes: opener ‘Loam’ launches the record softly, immersing the listener in a hazy ambience, and guiding our ears into the uncanny valley from which lead single ‘Dead Format’ explodes: a behemoth of distorted house. Most of the tracks that follow blend these two styles, melding the ethereal and the gut-punching, each new form always different enough to remain interesting. ‘No Lite’ is serpentine, a twisting rhythmic backbone growing layers of synthetic skin. ‘Cruel Sport’ is a looming cavalcade, a dark ode to the most physical of human expressions; Power’s experience as soundtrack to the Olympics in 2012 could well be the origin of its twitching grandeur.
The most punch is saved for closer ‘Detritus’, however: a knock-out of a track, its rattling static opening sounds like the disintegration of every track before it in a Star Trek-style transporter, their particles then being slowly reassembled into the tightest, most majestic swell of sound Dumb Flesh has to offer. As a closer, it holds phenomenal impact sonically and thematically. Where elsewhere tracks have their synths peeling off, shedding as erratic atoms, the body of ‘Detritus’ is triumphantly whole: the decay and error of the human body is redeemed in a new form, as vitality from mortality.
Dumb Flesh addresses the physicality of human experience from grotesque angles: the instrumental mass of these tracks swell and fracture, ebbing between the familiar and the uncanny as they refract EDM and drone into vital noise. These are merely the flesh of the songs, however; the human voices that course through them are the spirits that move them, the currents that jerk their spliced forms into life. The combination of body and spirit on Dumb Flesh makes for a flawed, unsettling, but majestic piece that celebrates the frailty and brilliance of humanity.