The debut album by Edinburgh’s Amateur Cult seems able to leave a deeply personal and individual impression on those who hear it. Like a reverse Rorschach test, its varying soundscapes and moods left a very visual imprint on my brain and that visualisation of the soundscape will inevitably be a unique internal inkblot to each involved listener.
It’s also hard to write about this record and avoid using the much-loathed, often-misapplied, and difficult-to-properly-agree-on-a-definition neologism of Hauntology – a term used both in political philosophy and in music discussions with varying intentions from varying users. I quite like to use the term to define that spooky feeling generated by interactions with the popular media of the relatively recent past. You know, videos of Noseybonk; public information films and post-war cartoons and the eerie vibe they give off. I much prefer using the term (probably wrongly) in that manner rather than referring to any sort of solid political philosophy or using it specifically to music that was better described with the later term ‘trip hop’.
Amateur Cult, despite drawing on various contributors, is essentially a moniker for Alastair Chivers, previously of False Bliss and DTHPDL.
The band’s first long playing release, conceived and written during lockdown, is a journey through the human relationships we all share with our phones, bank accounts, general existence in modernity and, to quote directly from the press release, ‘the perceptions we have manufactured through social, mass and political media’.
Opener ‘Synthetic Communications’ is really a chaotic, bleepy, 80-second intro before recent single ‘You Be You’ kicks in. A rattling drum machine opens into a droning singalong that sounds like Gary Numan if his batteries were running out. The synth trumpets that pop in from the two-minute mark make a decent fist of stealing a relatively thief-proof show.
The only other previous single, ‘The Ritual’, still resonates with all the impending sense of doom that I felt when first hearing it a few weeks ago.
It is grounded in more context as part of an album, but it still pounds the claustrophobic bones.
Next track ‘Ashes’, featuring MC TH!NK, revolves around a bouncing three-note synth riff but it’s the delivery of TH!NK’s rhymes that lifts the track into something that sticks out from everything else on the record. Lines about skyscrapers and the slums of empires really help paint a fantasy city – part futurist, part half-remembered grimy past – within which all of these sonic skylines exist.
With a fantastically suitable title, ‘Hipporealism’ is just one or two characters away from having the same name as an Adam Curtis documentary. Huge synth pads rise like audio searchlights throughout the track and it’s not hard to imagine the aforementioned Mr Curtis talking over the top of this about mass hysteria as visuals show an East German tug-of-war competition from 1983. The bit where live drums join in over the top of the drum machine is an exhilarating highlight.
‘Memories of an Empire’ sounds like a haunted 8-bit game from the early 90s coming back to haunt its ex-player who has moved on to more modern and slick gaming experiences. I will be having nightmares involving being chased by Psycho Fox and Mario, soundtracked by this, for years to come.
‘Everything Will Be OK’ seems an inappropriately titled song as it’s a short instrumental that conveys precisely none of the reassurance suggested by its name.
By contrast, ‘Fire and Full’ starts off as if it’s going to be a low-tempo dirge only to sprout a snare-heavy, frantic beat and blossom into something eminently dance-friendly. The outro, with its competing stylophone synth lines sliding and fizzing around, is among the most hopeful sounding minutes on the whole album.
The most obvious sign that the album was written during lockdown is the sea shanty stylings of ‘Sigh with the Sea’ (remember when that was a thing for about ten minutes? It was dreadful – let’s never allow that again). The repeated, slightly worrying refrain of ‘we bury what we find’ and the Blade Runner synth that dominates the second half of the song are just enough to save this from being too close to that awful shanty trend.
‘Final Battle with the Boss’ might get overlooked in the running order, which is a shame. The clarsach-style clean strings that pick out the original melody over drums that almost stray into big beat territory have just the right balance of disparate elements to produce something truly original. Not breaky enough to sound like it belongs on a Ninja Tunes compilation while fitting into the prevailing unsettling mood.
Closer, ‘The Mirrored Pattern’ recalls the impending doom vibe of ‘The Ritual’, with the pounding, broken drums being interrupted by the most inopportune piano notes conceivable.
Occasionally nightmarish with plenty of aural curiosities, this isn’t going to be a record for everyone. You won’t be popping it on for light background sounds when your parents visit. However, what Chivers and his co-conspirators have pulled off is a debut album that paints cerebral pictures for its listeners. Whatever the intention was, the effect is to be slightly overloaded with things that both belong to the recent past and an imagined near future. It’s a monorail ride across a burning, industrial sunset over ever-changing street-level vistas.
The Mirrored Pattern is out 28th October on Armellodie Records