System Focus: Adam Harper on the Divine Surrealism of Epic Collage Producers E+E, Total Freedom and Diamond Black Hearted Boy

In the first of a new monthly column, experimental music critic Adam Harper unearths a new strain of music from the internet’s depths.

May 07, 2014


In the first of his new monthly column, The FADER's favorite underground music critic Adam Harper stares deep into the internet's gloom to unearth emerging musical forms.

Grand piano keys creep out of an abyssal mist that curls from the open mouths of ghosts. A brand-new car gives chase across the dirt plain, a foreboding echoed in an Olympian crackle through a sky heavy with clouds. Towers of Babel glint sinister on the horizon, dark mills whipping up this slow storm. Then, a voice of immaculate R&B: I know you’ve been hurt by someone else. She reverberates at the edge of infinity, lifting the piano up into a mile-long shaft of light. Cause if you let me, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll take care of you.

This track, "SWORD" by Elysia Crampton, known as E+E (pictured above), features the voice of Ciara from Houston and might be the most awesome cover of Rihanna out there (specifically, Rihanna on Drake's "Take Care"). I don't mean 'awesome' in the sense of 'nice one.' I mean awesome in the biblical sense, in the sense that Jacob used of the place where he dreamed of angels ascending and descending a staircase that led to the Lord Herself: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). The album on which it appears, December's THE LIGHT THAT YOU GAVE ME TO SEE YOU is full of visions in which R&B romance becomes epic spiritual epiphany, and where Judgement Day pandemonium becomes the trials of personal love and innermost courage. Even its title could come equally from the quill of a saint or a chart-pop love letter.

E+E is at the center of a remarkable network of underground musicians—also including Total Freedom, Diamond Black Hearted Boy, TCF and several other artists—who have been combining fragments of pop with epic textures and violent sound effects. The framework is avant-garde sample collage, but their work tells stories about 21st-century experience that emanate surreally from cinematic sound-palettes, transcendental theology and stark, pure emotion. It lives on an unexpected spectrum between avant-queer club and that hi-tech no-space in which radio idents and the logos of games consoles and film companies appear as gigantic monuments, incandescent with divine light. These artists have been working with this sound to the intense acclaim of only a few thousand online followers for a few years now, but with recent releases more powerful than ever—their work is some of the most original in recent memory—their time is surely now.

The epic collage style brings together diverse artists from many different backgrounds all over the world, both aesthetically and through personal contact. For the most part, these artists know each other, support each other and work with each other. The network's clearest statement of intent was an LP released in late 2012 in an edition of 300, Blasting Voice (now sadly sold out). It was put together by Total Freedom—a magus of experimental online pop and cutting-edge DJing—and featured surreal sound-work by E+E, Diamond Black Hearted Boy, Felix Lee and VIOLENCE, but also early expressions of Fade To Mind's machine-dance style in tracks by Nguzunguzu, Massacooramaan and Dutch E Germ, alongside contributions from James Ferraro as Bodyguard, DIS-affiliated artist Ryan Trecartin, and Dentist, who recently appeared on the Sci-Fi & Fantasy label as Headlock. Blasting Voice's cover was the perfect visual analogue for its sound world: an intense, visceral mess of elements rendered in immaculate hi-fi with a supernatural figure in the foreground. The collage style was also noted by Jónó Mí Ló, a key musician in the networks of the online underground, who made a heady 'Sound Collage' mix for clothing label Whatever 21 called Eco Boosted Liquid.

The framework is avant-garde sample collage, but their work tells stories about 21st-century experience.

At first, much of this music might simply sound like a gratuitous hodgepodge of extreme sounds with little logic to connect them. But slowly, each juxtaposition of sound-objects becomes a surrealist image framed by its own curious insistence, and each sample becomes an element in a dreamlike cipher. In the same way that 16th century Dutch artists Bosch and Brueghel's paintings combined everyday life with esoteric religious imagery, and in the same way that the twentieth-century surrealists parodied bourgeois culture and plumbed newfangled psychiatric theories, the epic collagists reflect contemporary life, but in ways that don't yet seem fully comprehensible. Their technique is like that of Burial, who uses sound effects and musical samples to tell stories and paint pictures, but while Burial's music takes you to London and the mental experiences of its citizens, I don't know where these collagists are taking me. Well, their tracks seem to echo the intense experiences and high stimulation of our technologically mediated environment, and the panic attacks and bottomless terror that follows overstimulation. But they also gaze into the ornate decoration in our God-like multimedia lives, revealing its bliss and mystery. They're science fiction, too, showing the organic sliced and spliced into the machine, voicing itself somewhere between Utopia and Dystopia. And they emphasize the religious ritual and spiritual intensity in such modern youth commonplaces as playing a first-person shooter or listening to pop with a heart unclouded by indie-boy cynicism.

Take E+E. Most of her tracks frame the most gorgeous vocal parts of recent pop in ways that highlight a beauty that seemed previously unimaginable. This involves using new instrumental parts (often coming from contemporary classical music) that skillfully reharmonise and restructure the melody. One of my favourite E+E tracks is "Smile", which combines Justin Bieber with Steve Reich. Yet Crampton, like Total Freedom, doesn’t merely mashup and remix, she mixes together objects and styles as a musician, suggesting new ways of listening along with new pictures and new emotions. "Smile" is not just a bit of musical cleverness (though it is brilliantly accomplished), it's a portrait of innocence in the Garden of Eden.

It's the birdsong added to "Smile" that suggests the Garden of Eden, or, at least, a spring morning. But there are religious overtones throughout Crampton's work. She has a Christian background, and some of the spiritual thinking behind her work is outlined in this fascinating interview. She describes her process as the assemblage of trash, corpses, and shit (one of his most common sound-tags is a toilet flushing) into a new beast, an analogue for the creation of humans by the Lord, and thus hopefully something that can live transcendent and ever closer to God. For this, Crampton seems to have developed her own symbolic system, reminiscent of expressionist and neo-expressionist artists like James Ensor or Philip Guston respectively, that represents the holy struggles of biblical scenes and those who seek to emulate and draw inspiration from them. As well as pop and contemporary classical musics, the elements of this system include Latin-American dance styles and radio idents, vehicle engines, twinkling bell-tones and violent sounds like weapons being swung.

Given that the word 'Golgotha' (the site where Christ was crucified) is spoken as if by a video-game announcer at its start, E&E’s album track "OMEGA PLATE" might represent Christ struggling in Gethsemane and before the fickle crowds of Jerusalem, beset by Satanic forces in the guise of violent machinery and eventually, chillingly, captured by evil in the form of an onslaught of Formula One cars. On the following track, "CRUX," Christ is driven with whips to Golgotha, and finally, in "FIRE GUT," all the tumult of Hell is fought and overwhelmed on the Cross, and a voice promises Resurrection: Morning will come. Yet with as much religious resonance as these tracks might have, the fear, the courage and the grandeur is there for anyone to hear and relate to. E+E is now preparing new material based on original compositions rather than sampling, but the atmosphere is as compelling as ever, as his recent demo "Moth" demonstrates.

Total Freedom's sonic tag is a blood-curdling scream.

Crampton describes Total Freedom, aka DJ/producer Ashland Mines, as her brother. They met in LA, the city where Mines is part of the Fade to Mind collective alongside Kingdom, Prince William, Fatima Al Qadiri and others. Today, he is one of the most exciting and respected DJs in underground music, delivering lethal mixes for Boiler Room, Safe House, Hood By Air and others (all available on his Soundcloud) that duck and weave through pop and underground dance in unexpected but instantly effective ways. Yet although Total Freedom has a slightly more dance-ready sound, his aesthetic has lots in common with the other collagists, and his sonic tag is a blood-curdling scream. Much of his original material comes from an intense noise background, yet his remixes of Nguzunguzu (on their Timesup EP) and Dat Oven's "Icy Lake" (on the recent Fade to Mind / Night Slugs reissue) derive a minimalist perfection from bare sequences of sound effects. Mines's Soundcloud is full of strong Frankenstein creations, typically combining pop vocals with minimal, intense, or just plain weird backing. His recent combination of Ciara and Vissacoor (the joint project of L-Vis 1990 and Massacooramaan) goes particularly hard.

Chino Amobi, an American visual artist whose sound work is produced under the name Diamond Black Hearted Boy, also came to epic collage from a background of harsher sounds, but DBHB is at the other end of the spectrum from Total Freedom. With much smaller, repetitive structures of melody and text, his works are less easy to enjoy in a traditional musical sense, but what they lose in that, they gain in surreal power. The cassette he released for French label Steak Au Zoo last year, FATHER PROTECT ME, compiled some of his best individual tracks from the past few years, and makes a great introduction to his world. With a name that sounds like that of a magical anime hero, Diamond Black Hearted Boy's voice and presence are much more evident in his work than in that of the others, where he presents himself in the persona of a 'fallen god,' and a 'fake boy.' As such, he comes across as a sort of Lucifer—the tape opens with a text on the inter-relationship of humans, God's grace, sinners and the law—but also a prophet or, in that Renaissance garb on the tape's cover below, a kind of allegorical morality figure guiding us through the dark, disorienting, and sometimes heavenly places in which he lurks. Yet on a simpler level, DBHB's is a voice on the outer reaches of hip hop culture and its means of self-expression. If Kanye is a 'God,' DBHB is a fallen god languishing in some weird purgatory, and his collected work is a Yeezus for even greater degrees of alienation.

DBHB mixes together the sweetness and violence of the modern soundscape (music and non-music) in ways that play on the mind and are often frankly distressing. Tracks like "formulation of the higher p" sound like a euphoric but terrifying journey through the claustrophobic sewers of contemporary information. In "Virginia," the self-justification of a rapper / drug-dealer becomes an obsessive refrain inching towards completion, against atmospheric tones that take the ethereality of recent 'cloud rap' instrumentals to a transcendent extreme. And what space is revealed in "architecture"? A temple of worship for the future? A vast automated factory for some uninvented fuel source? Both?

If Kanye is a ‘God,’ DBHB is a fallen god languishing in some weird purgatory.

His economically titled album e, from August 2011, is more ruthlessly cybernetic, like a stressful trek through a sci-fi-action shooter. zᵉʳº, on the other hand, is one of the most punishingly cold and minimal releases you'll come across, a meditation on almost total nothingness with a sound palette that could've come from a Hollywood space blockbuster. DBHB's latest release How The West Was Won, Wanted: Dead or Alive flicks through the wreckage of the twentieth-century Americana like it was TV channels on a concave wood-paneled screen, jerry-building a mock-epic (anti-)hero's tale along the way. Standalone tracks can be found on DBHB's Bandcamp and Soundcloud accounts, and the visual aesthetic is explored on his Youtube channel which includes a 17-minute film titled Illuminazioni.

Across the Atlantic, the collage style has been represented by London-based producer and DJ Felix Lee, whose contribution to Blasting Voice, "National Grid", offers a spectacular accumulation of electrical destruction, sounding like a giant angel kicking a power station to pieces. (More recently, Lee has been moving towards modern club sounds very ably). In Denmark, Why Be has been working in the club end of the sound in sympathy with Total Freedom, and remixed E+E on the fam EP. Norwegian producer Lars Holdus, known as TCF, has been exploring epic soundscapes of a more abstract electronic nature in Oslo and Berlin. Like a painting by French artist Yves Tanguy, the assemblage of TCF's music and its space are surreal, but the objects are not as often recognizable like they are with the other collagists. Nevertheless, on his tape for Berlin cassette label YYAA and upcoming EP for Mute offshoot Liberation Technologies, TCF creates a similar thrill of hurtling through sublime hi-tech holiness almost free of rhythm, with great chunks of machine flying past. His music's sense of a technological territory is enhanced by the names of his tracks: large strings of numbers and letters, as if each recording was churned out by a computer capable of producing trillions more, and allotted a code whose meaning only its systems can grasp.

There are many other artists who have adopted the epic collage style or something like it, and still more, no doubt, waiting to be discovered deep within Soundcloud. The disturbing Baltimore producer VIOLENCE comes out of experimental witch house and, like DBHB, has a tape out on Steak Au Zoo. Creepier still is Oakland artist LOSS, the sonic embodiment of a trigger warning. Others work at the intersection of the machine club sound made famous by Fade to Mind and Night Slugs and its more surreal sibling, such as M.E.S.H. and the brilliant SENTINEL. Even Gatekeeper channeled the epic sound in parts of their recent EP Young Chronos, though they added in their high-end technical chops when it came to the hooks.

For me, these collagists represent one of the earliest and most imaginative subsections of the recent turn to hi-tech sounds that has cut across underground music lately. With the spread of this aesthetic, maybe more listeners can pick up their unique material, find a way into it, and expand their following beyond the cult. Either way, it'll remain some of the most mystifying and moving work in the field.

From The Collection:

System Focus
System Focus: Adam Harper on the Divine Surrealism of Epic Collage Producers E+E, Total Freedom and Diamond Black Hearted Boy