Music that rids itself of contextually vacant tinkering in favor of pointed critique.
As Gazelle Twin, Elizabeth Bernholz makes wildly experimental electronic music that rids itself of contextually vacant tinkering in favor of pointed critique. Most of her work doubles as performance or video art, so there’s always a narrative focus that keeps the music from becoming too insular or abstract. Her latest album, Pastoral, is easily her finest, taking the deconstructed dance music sounds from 2014’s Unflesh and merging them with a more refined approach to composition and an urgent message. The resulting album is a work that bristles with musical and political tension in order to lampoon and unravel far-right ideologies.
Musically, there are few—if any—electronic albums from 2018 that have such a distinct and baffling sonic palette. The album deals in both hi- and lo-fidelities, constantly pitting silky kick drums against purposefully clipped synthesizers. Even from the brief intro track, “Folly,” the complete oddity of Bernholz’s music is on display. Atop chromatic, winding keyboards, a robotic chorus of vocals asks a series of questions that end up guiding all of Pastoral: “What species is this?/ What century?/ What atmosphere?.” These mechanized chants are answered by an operatic voice repeating their words, more circling around the questions than even attempting to answer them.
This opening presents the key critical focus of the album: tracing historical lines to uncover why regressive politics remain so prominent as time goes on. Within this overarching focus, Pastoral is imbued with a definite Britishness. There are plenty of cultural and political references that will inevitably get lost in translation as they travel off of the island, but it is the album’s broad social critiques that will speak volumes to nearly every listener. “Better in My Day” finds Bernholz impersonating a cranky geriatric, manically repeating the titular refrain and bemoaning the up-and-coming generation: “Just look at these kids now/ No respect/ No proper jobs.” It’s propelled by a thumping drum loop, but the 3/4 meter disregards the club and forms instead a mechanic, bludgeoning waltz.
Much of Bernholz’s past music leaned towards dance music, and “Better in My Day” is one of a few cuts that uses burly beats to offer a more immediate composition. The most invigorating of these moments comes in the album’s violent climax, “Hobby Horse.” It forgoes bass for most of the track, letting layers of tinny noise slowly amass. By the end of the track, when the low end finally comes barreling in, the collage of noise walls, crushing percussion and Bernholz’s growled vocals are so overpowering that it’s almost unpleasant to listen to. “Hobby Horse” is completely unhinged, and delivers the angriest, most necessary and belligerent track here.
One of Pastoral’s greatest strengths is how it counters these nearly dance-like cuts with strange sound masses and droning instrumentals. The album’s centerpiece is the unnerving “Glory,” where Bernholz lets her voice take over the music for an emotive solo performance. There’s real sorrow here, but a sorrow backed with some of the most pointed anger on the whole record. Narratively, the track stabs at prideful nationalism, asking individuals to hold themselves accountable for any hopes of progress: “Will you become the saint you want to be?” The climax of the track occurs atop shifting masses of distortion, as Bernholz reaches the peak of her angst: “Who are you?/ Who are you?” she belts with a bitter snarl.
Narratively, conceptually and—most importantly—musically, Pastoral is an awe-inspiring record. Surrounded by some of the strangest, most rewarding sound design in recent electronic memory, Bernholz delivers a potent political message that escapes both alienating specificity and ineffective generalities. She inhabits the ideological space of her enemies, not to sympathize with them but to understand the seriousness of the growing culture around selfishness and xenophobia. It’s no coincidence, then, that many of the album’s most crucial lyrics come in the form of questions. Bernholz isn’t offering a fool-proof plan of resistance or painting a far-off utopian futures – she’s pointing fingers and asking how we, collectively, let ourselves get here.