James Ferraro returns to the pulpit, with songs of pollution, decay and sin.
Albums that change music rarely make comfortable listening; and James Ferraro's 2011 album Far Side Virtual is no exception. Taking the irony and nostalgia of Eccojams and blending it with midi-sounds, robot voices and Web 1.0 aesthetics. The album was a singular but divisive hit. Even being named The Wired’s album of the year 2011. “Appropriate in a year in which the abundance of choice brought on by digital technology reached such a tipping point as to make genuine consensus impossible.”
While he may have since moved away from the genre he helped inspire, the creativity and futurism of Ferraro should be of interest to any Vaporwave fan. Ferraro is a precociously creative musician, his work stretching back over 15 years at this point. With over 100 releases in his discography under both the Ferraro name and a wheeling list of pseudonyms. His style is diverse, constantly evolving, taking in a sweep of Glitch Hop, Hypnogogic Pop, Radio Rock, Vaporwave, New Age, R&B and beyond.
2019 brings Ferraro’s new offering, Requiem for Recycled Earth. “A 57-minute opus into ecocide and planetary divorce.” The album is part 1 in the “Four Pieces for Mirai” saga, whose prologue EP was released last year. In Ferraro’s words, the sequence promises to be, “a large epic work about civilizational decline that spans across four releases.”
To light his first album Ferraro has returned to his Modern Classical stylings, last seen on 2016’s Human Story 3. Album opener Embryo clues us into Ferraro’s sombre mood. An airlock hiss, followed by a gong, gives way to an arena of soaring choirs- while a web of angular synths crashes around. Everywhere on Requiem the natural world and the harshness of modernity clash. Calming woodwinds on No Future- sweet and tuneful, are pelted with gushes of steam and electronics. Omega Generation even blends these two motifs, with a lush- but synthetic keyboard melody. Also of note is Xerces Blau, with patterns that touch close to Kavinsky’s Synthwave. The choirs on display throughout the album are devotional and elevating. While the electronics at work are richly layered. It often feels like the album is suspended in space, which is no surprise given its scaling, planetary, ambition.
Whether he’s working with samples, keyboards or an orchestra Ferraro’s primary talent is as an arranger. Yet despite how tasteful the audio is, Requiem is a bleak, depressing experience. An underrated aspect of Ferraro’s charm is his cheeky humour. Clearly present on his lovable radio rock albums, full of camp, Far Side Virtual’s hologram waiters, offering Sushi prepared by “top chef Gordon Ramsay”, and in Human Story 3’s box-headed cover art. When Ferraro critiques, he satirises.
But this wit and flair are completely absent on Requiem. And the effects of it are punishing. This is an entirely earnest, stonily serious, album. Full of millenarian and apocalypse. Despite the guile with which Ferraro previously tackled topics of technology and capitalism, this time, with mankind's destruction of the environment firmly in his sights, he’s not joking.
While Requiem contains no explicit lyrics to parse, the song titles are blunt. The “Airless Matrix” of choking pollution, a “Deleted Biosphere” brought about by rampant technological process, the Chemical Death of the planet. There are hints of rebirth, opener Embryo, Cyber Seed and Recycled Sky. Still, as the album progresses, it sinks deeper into despair. Gaia Wept Effluent leads into Spawn of Hate, as humanity faces its final judgement.
Requiem clearly shadows Human Story 3, and not just sonically. HS3 was a meditation on capitalist alienation, with songs dealing with Marketphagia and Individualism. Yet the direct links between capitalism, market growth and climate change make Reqiuem an evolution of that theme. This twisted link was even foreshadowed back on HS3 with the songs, Plastic Ocean and Anthropoceniac. Yet HS3 appears jovial in comparison to Requiem. Maybe Ferraro views the current climate crisis as so serious, so immediate, that it warrants no dilution. No sugar with the medicine.
With this imperious attitude, Requiem for Recycled Earth can lay claim to being Ferraro’s most socially relevant album in years. October 2018 marked the release of the UN’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C; archiving the risks to human society and the planet should the international community fail to halt rising emissions. Most damning of all: the report warned that only by making, "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society," could the world hope to halt the impending catastrophe. Giving humanity a 12-year deadline to do so.
Requiem for Recycled Earth is the Extinction Rebellion in album form.
Once the musical swirls and clashes are settled, the listener is left as sombre as Ferraro. And after the sermon of Requiem, it's understandable, maybe even necessary, to hope that the rest of the Mirai saga is redemptive. That Ferraro will offer some solace to us. Despite the desolation humanity has caused. Surely the message of the album, and the message of Mirai, is imploring us to change track- to embrace nature and discard vitiation?
Being confronted with humanity’s towering crimes, it’s hard not to pray for absolution, as the 4 Pieces for The Future dance on.
Sam L. Barker is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory.
Illustration by VHS MIDNIGHT STYLE.