Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Valkyrie 1984 & Kirk Gadget - Ghost in the Machine: Episode II

By Michael CA L

It's hard to believe that so much of what we've read in science-fiction literature and film has become reality, but it truly has. Yeah, the flying cars, time-travel and terraforming end of the sci-fi spectrum may still seem incredibly far from where we are, or even implausible or downright absurd, such as what we all saw depicted as "The Future", as explored in material such as the Jetsons, Flash Gordon, Star Trek and other genre-related classics. But I believe now that outright dismissals and head-shakery towards these dated sci-fi tokens is a result of the style, delivery, and trends of the times in which they were produced rather than the concepts themselves.

I find myself smirking less an less these days when reading or watching something involving speculations as to where we, the human race, are headed with all of our increasingly complex scientific knowledge and technological hardware. However implausible "The Future" may have seemed as presented in old-timey sci-fi, plenty of what was dreamt by the prophets and seers of yesterday has become very possible aspects of tomorrow's world. Advancements in nano-tech, prosthetics, the development of A.I., and the chemical, genetic and hardware-centered augmentation of the human body are currently with us and advancing with each passing day, and while the age of trans and post-humanism is still in its infancy, there's no denying that its here with us now and gaining considerable momentum with each new thrust of scientific innovation.

With that being said, one of the literary and cinematic genres which has most deftly predicted and acutely scrutinized the directions in which we currently find ourselves moving is cyberpunk. With an often brutal rawness and unfiltered look at the rough edges of humanity, cyberpunk has held a dark mirror up to our societies and civilizations and reflected back to us an image that may sometimes be dirty or unpleasing to the delicate eyes of the nostalgically-inclined, but one that most certainly demands our attention (if we're not playing the role of ostriches with our heads in the sand, that is), because the worlds predicted by such prophets as William Gibson, Ridley Scott, Bruce Sterling and Masamune Shirow are quite possibly the most accurate predictions of our future world that we have available to us.

Which brings me, finally, to another media spectrum beyond that of film and literature that has embraced the concepts and ideas contained within the cyberpunk genre and explored them in its own way. I speak of music, of course, and in this particular case, the music of synthwave mainstays Valkyrie 1984 (AKA Jay Salazar) and Kirk Gadget (AKA Kyle Sims) who with their newest volume of the Ghost in the Machine saga, have put together a collection of cyberpunk-centered music that encompasses many of the same speculations and scenarios as the aforementioned visionaries, but uniquely address these concepts through sound alone instead of through visual or literary mediums.

With the essence of the music most closely zeroed in on retro-futuristic electronic sound that is both lost in a decade just behind our clearest memories and at the same time posited just beyond the next horizon, the duo take their finely-honed production and composition skills to a place where high-tech sounds of the contemporary digital age couple seamlessly with the grim, reality-blurring and post-human-centered cyberpunk aesthetic of 80's and 90's cyberpunk. To quote Jay Salazar, "the over-arching theme of the album [relates to] Ghost in the Shell" with its "concept of the cohesive amalgamation between human and machine," and this is readily apparent to all those who are familiar with the concepts and aesthetic of that legendary cyberpunk milestone.

From the artwork Jay and Kyle have used to represent their work (a still of GS protagonist Motoko Kusanagi, who is a vehicle through which the GS creators explore the increasingly ambiguous definition of what it is to be human), to the various samples from the Ghost in the Shell anime (as well as other iconic cyberpunk media), to the machine-like, blood-and-fuel-injected, synthetic-yet-organic sounds used throughout the album, Ghost in the Machine Episode II is a work that pulses with cyberpunk contextuality. And like all the best works within the genre, it's a complex exploration of the tenuous relationship between humans and machines with a focal point that rests both on the clean lines of the machine as well as on the beautifully fallible and fragile rough edges of humanity. And again, like the very best cyberpunk, it doesn't just show us a scenario to appreciate on a surface-based level, but encourages us to go deeper; to redefine our notions of what it is to be human and where to draw the increasingly murky line that separates the so-called autonomous from the perceived automaton.

As Rick Deckard famously stated in the cyberpunk masterwork Blade Runner, "Replicants are like any other machine - they're either a benefit or a hazard." Deckard's simplistic point of view which utterly dehumanizes the machine and draws a clear line between the artificial and natural, is famously shattered beyond recognition by the film's conclusion, and this same sentiment of ambiguity is very much a part of the Ghost in the Machine Episode II listening experience. Tracks such as Valkyrie 1984's 'Arise (feat. Galfire)' and Kirk Gadget's 'Vanish (Epilogue)' brood with a human resonance that bring the listener close to the heart of the debate of whether the new world of machines is a benefit or a hazard. There's a warmth to these compositions that makes one yearn for a world in which emotional responses direct action and machines are simply devices through which human contact is facilitated.

Tracks such as Kirk Gadget's 'CONTROL' and Valkyrie 1984's 'Stand Alone Complex', however, are experiments in sound-organization that are delivered with precision, programmed with a razor-sharp focus of intent, and hammered home with control and complexity. They're the kind of elegant musical exercises that inspire thoughts of a near-future where the definition of a human being that is lacking technological augmentation is a definition that invariably includes adjectives such as "imprecise", "deficient" or "fragile." Other tracks, such as Valkyrie 1984's 'RE Embody (Prologue)' and Kirk Gadget's 'Synthetic Hearts (In the City Mix)' strike a balance between the two worlds, where both humans and their technological creations work together in tandem to produce something that is more pure than what either could create standing alone.

By putting together an album that contains one part Valkyrie 1984 and one part Kirk Gadget (with songs by both artists being spliced together and interlinked in a manner that defies an A/B/A/B, separated, half-and-half schematic), Jay and Kyle enable their individual offerings to intermingle and coalesce in a way that is utterly refreshing. We the listeners aren't presented with the typical one-two offering that is standard among split releases. There is no neat separation or dividing line by which each artist is given a half-hour to show and tell. Instead, the songs are tracklisted in a way that tells a single story from the variable, non-patterned point of view of two separate individuals, both with a vested interest in telling the tale with vivid description, but both doing so from different standpoints and through different eyes, minds and technological means.

I had the pleasure of conversing with both Kyle and Jay as I was writing this review, and Kyle sums it up neatly by describing the method as such: "I dug the idea of both of our characters combining forces and I think our styles worked really well to paint a picture of a corrupt neo-Tokyo future city controlled by evil corporations. We both have very different styles and we felt like that meshed well. So....we decided to make a [release] out of it, taking it a step further, and adding a story to our songs." When asked to elaborate on the overall vision, Jay had this to say: "We just tried to make a high-energy record that could be an imaginary soundtrack for a dark and romantic science-fiction story [through] hardcore synthwave/outrun."

The two succeeded with rocket-propelled colours, as the album provides the listener with a diversity of sounds, rhythms, tempos and conceptual exploration that engages on a level that is truly staggering. The unique partnership began when Kyle and Jay met through online networks and decided to work together, resulting in a collaborative track called 'Midnight Killer', which was heard as a bonus track on the first Ghost in the Machine album, released in January of 2015. With both parties sharing an enthusiasm for retro-inspired music but learning plenty from each other in terms of production as well as cyberpunk and science fiction concepts, they struck a chord that was strong enough to produce a fantastic first volume of music (Ghost in the Machine Episode I) and carry on towards the creation of this new second volume, which maintains the compelling thematic focus of the first but takes their vision of cyberpunk to bold new places as well.

As Kyle describes, "both [releases] take place in a dystopian, neo-Tokyoesque kind of city, so we tried to shape the sound to that effect". The effect is powerful, and the listener is presented with a aural storyboard that moves from zone to zone, sector to sector, and scene to scene with a fierce momentum that is at once broadly detailed and at the same time singular in its suggestion that the future is a shining expression of humanity's technological aptitude - for better or worse. And as the mind's eye constructs images to suit the powerful sounds that are presented by this complex and unique album, thoughts that transcend the ordinary and the organic are virtually inescapable. When listening to Ghost in the Machine: Episode II, it's like a new program has been introduced to the mind through the ears. It's as if there were a machine installed within the ghost - or vice versa, of course. And in essence, it's a listening experience that is jarring, multifaceted, highly dynamic, and very well worth experiencing. Unless you'd rather play the role of the nostalgically-inclined ostrich with your head in the sand, that is.

Valkyrie 1984 and Kirk Gadget - Ghost in the Machine Episode II comes very highly recommended by Synthetix.FM and is available for download here on Valkyrie 1984's Bandcamp.

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