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Have a Nice Life
The Unnatural World Robin Smith , February 12th, 2014 10:47

The liner notes of The Unnatural World, Have a Nice Life's second LP, contain a manifesto on the advances of science and the grip of mortality, full of analytical philosophy and post-rock appropriate fear-mongering. It's kissed off with eight terrifying words about good old you: "There exists a secret plot to kill you". There probably doesn't, but I've started to believe in one anyway; this is a Bedroom Conspiracy Theory at its most convincing, unspecific and so personal in its threat against your life that the words feel suffocating. The Unnatural World makes a subjunctive point: you might die.

Or you can just ignore that. Despite their high concepts, Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga have always been subject to their inner demons. Their debut record, Deathconsciousness, featured a seventy page booklet presenting a character study of the little-known historical figure Antiochus, but like its protagonist, the music's true meaning faded. Most listeners were late game genre-hoppers, oblivious to the record's original minimal pressing. What stood out instead were the band's miserable, human-scale aphorisms, and how they manifested: "I don't love!", shot in the dark. "I just don't accept this", uttered inevitably. And then there was the record's ultimate mission statement, screamed through hand-clasped mouths: "Why is life so lonely?". Have a Nice Life were special because of those words, related like solipsism circling blogs. They channelled them through their overwhelmingly heavy, occasionally pretty sound – accurately but unhelpfully labelled "doomgaze", a genre portmanteau used to describe their marrying of metal, industrial, post-rock, drone and shoegaze. The genres didn't matter; the planet-devouring Deathconsciousness bled bedroom pop into amplifier worship all it liked, but came to be known as a masterpiece of depression.

For scope alone, Deathconsciousness feels important, but it also makes the band's new music sound contented and unfussy. 'Guggenheim Wax Museum', The Unnatural World's opener, has many of the band's staples: a derelict lo-fi aesthetic that buries vocals deep at the song's epicentre, drums that sound like scrap metal being dropped from a great height, and wailing reverb piled up like bricks in a prison wall. It plummets from its miasmic ambient intro into a hellish slow march much in the way earlier songs did, trapping Barrett and Macuga within their music after a moment of desperate bargaining. It's typical Have a Nice Life, something fans will recognise and feel serviced by after the six long years between records, but there's a different quality to it: the gloom is less insistent, and Barrett's steady vocals are impartial amongst the torrential soundscaping.

The Unnatural World runs for forty minutes less than Deathconsciousness did, which makes its descent from Barrett's lonely Connecticut bedroom into the pits of hell less devastating. The glimpse at the band's eternal misery is minimised, and the vantage point is informed. There are only two truly blistering moments, the first being post-punk jam 'Defenstration Song', which brings the band's fear of being followed to life, uniting around the most simplistic lyric they've penned yet: "Get off my back!". Sirens blare through the song before it slows, like the comedown of a heartbeat, into a stony outro. It's coupled with 'Unholy Life', a surprising burst of euphoria on a record of ascetic terror. It opens with the least treated guitar riff in Have a Nice Life's discography before busting out one that skirts into the darker side of Interpol's Turn On The Bright Lights. The vocals are eventually lost in the song's tunnel of thick-layered shoegaze, but for a different kind of noise; it's a heavenly racket. 'Unholy Life' has a misleading cadence, as well – it has its own sense of finality, and its own sense of hope. It belongs to a different record.

Compared with those moments, the rest of The Unnatural World merely suspends tension. It builds its cacophony slowly and specifically, modelling it around the spectral, bell-ringing drone of 'Music Will Untune The Sky' and the disturbing noir of 'Cropsey', which takes after Barrett's solo project, Giles Corey, in sampling speech and contextualising it into scenes that make it even more horrific. The song features an interview with a patient of Pennhurst mental intuition, but the dialogue is made desolate by the ambience swelling around it. Barrett has a knack for making the human voice sound invisible; like 'Empty Churches' on Giles Corey, which featured a documentary monologue on ghosts and radio transmissions, 'Cropsey' uses spoken word to make its setting sound like a wasteland. Have a Nice Life's punishing aesthetic is familiar to The Unnatural World, but it's used tentatively, the band feeling for the space between the phenomenal and physical. The vocals still exist deeply in the soles of the music, but they make the record sound haunted rather than isolated; at times it's as if the power has been beaten out of Barrett and Macuga, but at others their voices are so resolute you turn around to check you're alone. 'Burial Society' is ghostly, unhinged by Barrett's chant of "It isn't real"; it's supposed to sound reassuring, but he slurs "real" as if he's praying. Another chant follows: "But it feels real!". They're two thoughts that juxtapose the difference between alive and dead, which is a distinction you can hear: the beat is as steady as they come, and as soft as Have a Nice Life make them, but the rest of the song is off-kilter, comprised of wobbly piano, numbed riffing and the duo's tragicomic howls.

The Unnatural World doesn't have the same significance as Deathconsciousness. As much can be deduced from its bookends: 'Guggenheim Wax Museum' is a brilliant, meta deconstruction of the sound Barrett and Macuga have made so sacred, and 'Emptiness Will Eat The Witch' is a sparse, subtly modulated ambient composition built around a handful of slithery guitar phrases and scattered percussive snaps. Both sound monolithic, but contain that hugeness rather than contribute it to something bigger. That isn't a problem as much as it is a symptom of how the record functions. Deathconsciousness was a masterpiece that came apart from what listeners knew about it, and meant different things depending on whether your copy came as a .zip or in the mail; The Unnatural World is just summed up by the beads of sweat it was made with and the shadows crawling over it. In a way that actually makes for a better record – one that is inherently terrifying, whether or not you know there's a secret plot out there to kill you. Which there definitely is.

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