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East India Youth
Total Strife Forever Rory Gibb , January 10th, 2014 09:06

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Viewed in a MIDI software sequencer, the rectangular blocks that represent programmed notes always look so clunky and graceless compared to the music they encode. Essentially instructions to the instruments the sequencer is plugged into, their squared-off look seems to represent everything naysayers might once have had you believe about digital music: cold and calculated, overworked, lacking in spontaneity, flexibility and the human touch. In 2014, of course, those notions now seem as quaint and outdated as the bleep-screech-whirr of a 56k modem connection. William Doyle's choice to scatter MIDI notes across the cover art for his debut album as East India Youth, Total Strife Forever, seems calculated to emphasise that fact: the music contained within is so lusciously textured, so intricately detailed and considered, as to make those rectangular blocks seem absurdly simplistic by comparison.

Yet Total Strife Forever does feel like a distinctly digital album, and its strengths lie in the way that it plays with that, often to striking emotional effect. Now that plenty of us spend significant portions of our lives mediated by the flat, cool glare of a laptop screen, I often find myself wondering how pop music might end up reflecting those bouts of semi-aloneness, and the contradictory impulses they stir up in mind and body. Essentially an articulate, smart and expressive orchestral pop album cast in glacial, overtly synthetic tones, Total Strife Forever finds Doyle - who recorded it in the months following his former band's break up, while ensconced in a flat in London's Docklands - drawing subtle but affecting parallels between solipsistic data immersion and actual bodily, physical and emotional experiences of isolation and depression.

Indeed, all sorts of musical references spring to mind across the course of Total Strife Forever, but they're not only the Berlin-era Bowie, Philip Glass, Sufjan Stevens, Brian Eno and Neu! calling cards mentioned by Doyle and critics alike. It also brings to mind a host of contemporary electronic music that imagines a kind of freaky, unsettlingly beautiful digital psychedelia: later Zomby's nighttime wanderings through CGI forests, the tense power struggles between human voice and synthetic environment of Laurel Halo's Quarantine, the grime-inspired chilly synth-drifts of Visionist.

Long distances between vocal tracks heighten this effect; despite Doyle's keen ear for a hook, there are only four on here, and Total Strife Forever's predominantly instrumental nature and searching mood lend the album the feeling of a journey inwards. The acoustic piano arpeggios of opener 'Glitter Recession' gradually harden into a vortex of shivering synth notes, with the whole piece gradually descending into deep blue permafrost across five minutes. 'Midnight Koto''s melodies drop like pinpricks into the data sea, each one sending ripples rebounding out into the distance like drops of water into a suikinkutsu. The four 'Total Strife Forever' tracks scattered around the album possess the mood of a solo wander through beautiful, depopulated territories, where shards of effected guitar and delicate, splintered notes evoke an inner landscape of crystal towers, frost-encrusted railway lines and rolling fields of razor-edged grass. But there's still warmth: when, four and a half minutes through 'Total Strife Forever I', a great riptide of hot, seething distortion curls up through the mix, the effect is blissful - the entire piece seems to glow, as if warmed by orange rays of sun on a chilly morning.

Amid this pristine world, 'Heaven, How Long' is both midpoint and dizzying highlight. Above a zooming, immaculately catchy synth-pop lead line, and amid talk of "valerian awakenings" and "amitriptylene evenings", Doyle's voice cracks and bleeds around the edges, his sibilants turned to freezing fog by carefully applied bursts of reverb. Even as it accelerates to its euphoric, beatless climax, he appears to be dissolving into his surroundings, becoming progressively more disembodied until the ground drops away entirely, then the song finally explodes into a harsh, motorik chug and squalls of guitar noise. Taken alone it's a beautiful and compulsively replayable pop song - it has lost none of its power since it was released on Doyle's Hostel EP (also the debut 12" released through The Quietus' record label) - but in the context of the album's long stretches of contemplation it's revealed as something entirely weirder and more haunting.

The same is true of the rest of the album's songs, and the way Doyle's lyrics, while open to interpretation, often feel as though they're being sung as mantras to himself. 'Dripping Down' plays like an incitement to action, beginning life at "glacial pace" before its chorus plunges into delirious, joyous freefall. Later, 'Looking For Someone's "looking for someone, I don't know where they are" could be read as desire for contact with other humans, yet Doyle abruptly flips the tone a couple of lines later, hinting that he might actually be attempting to get a handle upon his own diffuse psyche: "just for me and no-one else / I need something for myself". In the context even the title, Total Strife Forever, feels conflicted, both celebratory and darkly witty.

Despite their ambiguous sentiments, these songs, studded throughout the album's length, betray a straightforward pop sensibility that feels refreshing in the sonic world they're placed within. As a result, one of the most striking things about this strange and idiosyncratic record is how not-strange it feels. That, along with Doyle's very contemporary refusal to impose dividing lines between the musical styles he's interested in - shoegaze and orchestral pop rubbing shoulders with ambient music and even, on 'Hinterland', fuzzed-out techno - makes Total Strife Forever that most welcome of things: an often fairly classicist pop record which nods heavily towards naggingly familiar influences, yet doesn't feel like it could exist at any other time than now.

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Jan 10, 2014 3:19pm

Everything I've heard of this so far has been incredible. Can't wait to get my hands on the full album. Do wonder about the title though, some kind of Foals joke?

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Jan 10, 2014 5:35pm

You need to cover this guy alot more, you hardly feature him at all

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Luke Turner
Jan 10, 2014 5:39pm

In reply to Terry:

You'll be pleased to know we have a big interview coming up next week

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Jan 10, 2014 5:43pm

In reply to Luke Turner:

Phew, I thought he might have had a shit recently or something and I was worried missed it

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Jan 10, 2014 8:27pm

In reply to Terry:

Terry you wag!

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Jan 10, 2014 9:13pm

Couldn't you have arranged for the artist's mum to review this? It might have been a bit more impartial.

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Jan 11, 2014 12:46am

In reply to Terry:

No one actually forces you to read anything on this site, Terry.

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Jan 11, 2014 8:20am

Yes, can you please stop featuring good music. It's getting really annoying.

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Jan 11, 2014 11:34am

Saw this live, really, really, really average.

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Jan 11, 2014 11:36am

really overblown soars throughout...and his laptop fell over. can't really understand the hype.

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Jan 12, 2014 5:49pm

No harm done, just a little dig

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Jan 12, 2014 9:35pm

Dull vocals, a couple of interesting tracks but, on the whole, a bit of a snooze.

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Jan 13, 2014 10:01am

In reply to jmeln:

Shame. Seeing him after being gripped by the tentacles of the online hype machine, I thought it was really good. The live version of 'Hinterland' made me feel like my head wanted to explode. So much energy in that one, f*cking loud and impossible not to move to

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Jan 14, 2014 10:43pm

In all seriousness (and with the utmost sincerity) can someone explain why this album is considered to be so special. I'm at a loss as to how so many online publications have rated it so highly and am keen to know what it is I am missing. Correct me if I am wrong, but it sounds to me like a chap who doesn't really know what his sound is and this album therefore comes across as a confused and sadly, inferior effort at a range of styles, which have been done better elsewhere.

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Feb 5, 2014 9:12pm

In reply to Loki:

Yeah there were good moments, when he veered close to techno...just negated by the vocals and Sigur Ros style pyrotechnics.

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