Futures Past

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Monument Builders is something new from Vancouver’s premiere purveyor of monochromatic electronica, loscil (aka Scott Morgan). While an alternate title might be More Songs about Buildings and Mood, Monument Builders touches down firmly in the mid 1970s with its architectural references, sonic clues and in the titling of tracks. I’ve been a loscil fan for many years and listened as the recordings have become comfortably reliable. Here, though, we have a meaningful shift that takes us backwards and forwards simultaneously. And it’s a welcome change, fitting with, it seems, the swirl of world events.

Built forms have always been a reference point for Scott. Think of the diagram of the Lions Gate Bridge that is the cover image of his superb 2004 CD First Narrows…or the steam tower on the cover of 2006’s Plume  that carries echoes of the Factory Records logo (1970s) and Pink Floyd’s Battersea Power Station-shot cover for 1977’s Animals.

When Scott approached me this summer to do some new portraits we talked of two buildings that served as visual signposts: Arthur Erickson’s 1968 MacMillan Bloedel (MacBlo) building on Georgia Street and Vladimir Plasvic’s 1974 Medical/Dental building (better known as the Frank Stanzl building) on Broadway. They are Vancouver’s two most conspicuous examples of the concrete brutalist style of architecture, a style often derided by the public and not always judiciously employed where public spaces are concerned.

Erickson’s SFU campus has served as a film location for dystopian sci-fi features (1972’s Groundstar Conspiracy) and the MacBlo building (or The Waffle it was often called by locals) was used as the villainous banker’s lair in a Muppet Christmas Movie (2002) and the Canadian Secret Service’s headquarters in the excellent CBC series Intelligence (2007).

By contrast, Vladimir Plasvic’s Medical/Dental building on Broadway (which appears on the cover) still stands clearly apart along the south False Creek skyline. It’s still graceful and, by all accounts, a pleasure to work within. Even the ‘70s font at the entrance of its underground garage retains its charm. It represents the upside of the movement, and it’s tough to imagine a dystopian nightmare unfolding within its walls. An appreciative essay by Lindsay Brown can be found here: http://ounodesign.com/2012/05/27/1970s-brutalist-building-vancouver-vladimir-plavsic/

Both of these buildings were distinctive and provocative structures for their day and in retrospect it’s easy for some to project a society’s ideals or failures on them. There have been many more concerning urban architectural developments since then but of these two, which would sci-fi author JG Ballard choose to set a novel in? What would the soundtrack be like?

There’s been a recent feature film adaptation of High Rise, a 1975 Ballard novel about a dystopian future where social breakdown occurs within a self-contained high-rise development. The set designer fully embraced the concrete brutalist aesthetic. Further connecting us here is the use of Tangerine Dream’s music on the soundtrack with a piece heavily indebted to another great minimalist, Steve Reich, whose masterstroke, 1978’s Music for 18 Musicians is a foregrounded influence.

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Which leads us to the music on Monument Builders. Another cited influence is Koyaanisqatsi, the Godfrey Reggio film from 1982 (but shot mostly in the 70s) which brought the movie music of Philip Glass (whose signature style was developed in the 70s) to a wide public. Scott recently saw it again on an old VHS tape and was reminded of its impact but experienced it anew with a level of visual/aural distortion caused by its condition of being an aging artifact requiring a fading technology to reanimate it. It has a marked influence on this new recording. On Red Tide fragments of Glass make a brief appearance in the wake of a sequenced pulse reminiscent of Sorcerer-era Tangerine Dream, the synth-driven technocrats of the so-called Krautrock era in 1970s Germany. It’s the first time I’ve detected any noteworthy influence of other artists coming to the surface in Scott’s music but it’s purposeful and welcome.

Straw Dogs (another title from the 70s, this time of a very dark film directed by Sam Pekinpah) feels very much like an electronic brass lament or calling which gradually builds into a kind of martial crescendo leading us to a cliff edge. I’ve never seen the film but that description fairly traces the narrative arc of the story line. Deceiver is more straightforwardly mournful and more familiar in terms of the lugubrious sound palette long term fans will recognize.

The title Anthropocene stems from the recent and widely accepted view that we now inhabit an age where the human species exerts a (largely negative) dominant force upon the earth, its biodiversity and sustaining systems. It is another pulsing Glass/Tangerine Dream-like piece that immediately puts one at the centre of a shiny, damaged future/present world where rather than being repulsed by decay we might be dazzled by its remaining shards and colourful, toxic abstractions.

Monument Builders is no pulsing, slightly scuffed and bucolic Autobahn for Vancouver as I once described First Narrows (over a decade ago!). Nor is it the blissful, billowing aural float session of Plume. Even the more recent and much cooler Sea Island offered few hints at the queasy undercurrent to come on Monument Builders. Overall, there is a more anxious tone, a persistent foreboding, a palpable anticipation of force majeure.

And there have been some unexpected life events informing the work. In addition to ruminating on mortality generally and reflecting on the ambivalent beauty of photographer Edward Burtynsky’s depictions of humanity’s relentless scarring of the earth, the illness of a friend’s young daughter came as a special shock. Scott rose to the occasion the best way he knew how: to create. Thus For Greta, a digital EP was released on-line in aid of the family. And that, ultimately, is the point. We create to endure and hope our creations endure.

Monument Builders is both a dark turn and an act of survival, an act of creation to spite fear. It is music of our time … or rather all time because we are forever tired, beaten, fearful, energetic and joyful.

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https://loscil.bandcamp.com/album/monument-builders