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Tunabunny
Kingdom Technology Helen King , March 20th, 2014 10:43

Let's go crazy! Gallop across the bounds of Kingdom Technology, and the first sound you'll hear ricocheting between its stony walls will be the fluctuating drone of a synthesized organ, over which Prince may as well begin intoning "dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life..." So begins 'Airless Spaces', a fittingly claustrophobic initiation – replete with layered, cascading vocals and thunderous, distorted drums fighting for oxygen – to Tunabunny's new long-player. Prince doesn't stalk this record; but stalked it is, and by something restless, embattled, and increasingly urgent. Unsettling from the beginning, Kingdom Technology consists of fourteen songs which have decisively shaken off their constricting bridles – metallic mouth bits and flexed leather reins - but that nonetheless leave them, glinting and sinister, on the ground for all to see.

As the title suggests, Kingdom Technology is an album concerned with structures of power and structures of impotence; anachronistic and/or reductive value systems, the endless intersection of the personal and the political. And, though a claim like the last one may sound like I'm running full-tilt for a spot in Pseud's Corner, it's kinda justified given the overt preoccupations, ambitions, and self-fashionings of this band, who are nothing if not intensely cerebral (with Tunabunny it is always worth checking out the press releases/interviews/other textual ephemera which attends each release; this album is "the sound of falling in love with your eavesdropper" via "songs about asylums both loving and sinister", don't you know). Kingdom Technology interrogates at length, and with authority, the new retinue of what Huggy Bear called "toxic freedoms" (another annotation asks "what does it mean to be strong?"), and  - "one step forward, three steps back" – shows you how you can choreograph that interrogation. Unleashed, the music describes different kinds of leashes, and does so in a series of ferociously danceable, mantra-scourged pop eviscerations.

As should be evident from the deliberately hyperbolised slant of their self-promotion, they also have a lot of fun here (to wit, "if Brigette Adair Herron & Mary Jane Hassell are, as some UK critics have called them, "the female Lennon/McCartney," then Kingdom Technology is Tunabunny's Revolver"). Pillaging from disco, punk, indiepop, and the dirtier corners of electronica, Tunabunny flaunt their audacious borrowings and ostentatious reference points, calling themselves out even as they commit them to tape.  Kingdom Technology is the kind of record we've been missing in recent times; twitching with melody and discordance and fury, sharply engaged with a heritage of the similarly afflicted, and endlessly gesturing beyond the parameters of the record itself towards all the places they still wanna go, but don't have room to. Yet.

Hailing from Athens, Georgia, Tunabunny's output to date - including the three albums Tunabunny, Minima Moralia, and last year's Genius Fatigue – describes a band with a markedly distinct identity and aesthetic; Herron, Hassell, Jesse Stinnard, and Scott Creney have not only shown themselves to be a hugely prolific bunch, but also unapologetically assured of the import of what they are doing. Yes, they take themselves very seriously, but they know what's funny about that, and why the two stances are far from mutually exclusive. In the last four years they have unfurled a wealth of coruscating, acutely observed cultural commentary over a seemingly bottomless reservoir of down and dirty pop/punk noise. Kingdom Technology, with lapidary finesse, confirms and redefines the space they have carved out for themselves: in its palpable shift towards a more clinical, mechanised, detached musical foundation, Tunabunny's new record is as strange, unwieldy, and unnervingly precise in its focus as one would expect given their previous work.

For, whether their corrupt monarch or not, technology is hauled into the foreground on this one, which pulsates with synthesised beats and loops, clipped mechanical breaks and abortive glitches. When you can't dance to it (you can dance to most of it), you can instead be assailed by the way the music – and Herron and Hassell's vocal work in particular - catapults between an unearthly, clinical ululation, the sound of machines and industry, and then a disarming warmth, up-close and deeply human. When this music is not galvanising you – instigating the involuntary firing-off of random electrodes and synapses in your automaton of a brain – it is whispering earthy secrets into your downy ear, countering metal with flesh.

'Canaries In Mineshafts' is a clipped cyclone announcing its own arrival in howls and swirling feedback, whilst 'Save It Up' – a tense, propulsive disco-inflected track – introduces the relentless morse code which will punctuate this record in ever more frenetic tattoos, as seemingly randomly-programmed stabs of static gather themselves into a slick staccato beat. Here as elsewhere, Herron's vocals, in both intonation and insight, recall the sidelong observational lyricism of Honey Bane in the Fatal Microbes' 'Violence Grows'; words are used like daggers, tilted at the angle of maximum force, dripping citric acid and insecticide. "I use my anger in a positive way", she assures us, and we don't doubt it for a second. 'Different Jobs' weirdly brings Gang Of Four's 'We Live As We Dream, Alone' to mind, Hassell and Herron in isolated pockets of their own, yet reaching out to each other across the void with taut lyrical and melodic echolalia.

It's not all venom and robots; 'Good God Awful' sounds like it could have straight off of Sleater Kinney's All Hands On The Bad One – which is no bad thing - and 'Coming For You' is almost startling in its context, being a gorgeous, straight down the line sugary rush of Athens sunshine which slices through the predominantly soot-shrouded architecture of the rest of Tunabunny's beleaguered kingdom. Throughout, there are deep bows to Throwing Muses and fellow Athens' band Pylon, whose stunning (and vastly underrated) 1980 album Gyrate has long seemed a vital signpost for the younger Georgian band.

Pylon's presence can be felt most viscerally on standout track 'Chalked Up'; an acerbic, snarling dismantling of gender performativity and the defunct vernaculars which attend upon it: "where did you learn to walk like that, boy? Are you the quintessential man?" Double-tracked female vocals which drip with unrest and condemnation exhort the listener to "kiss this generation goodbye" in a way which makes us feel we've never heard such a sentiment before. A stomping, arrow-tipped song, catchy as hell, which blurs the line between ESG and X-Ray Spex, if there was one there to begin with. And then the T-buns go all dance on our ass with 'Bag Of Bones', a skewed disco track which collides Donna Summer with Crass via New Order all by way of the single repeated lyric "I paid good money for those; old bag of bones." Sparse and unsettling, the song clatters with fossils and coins and sterility, with Herron at full sinister lilt, and Hassell in the background, wailing like a ghost trapped in the machine.

Album closer '(They say) This Is Where Our Dreams Lie' is a fragmentary 6 minute-plus oddity, in which fugitive pellets of sound dart outwards and away from the vortex of the song, only to then deflect off the horizon and spear their way back in. Through this track, Herron's vocal becomes more guttural, desperate and fragmented, wrenching itself apart into smaller and smaller pieces with each increment in disdain and self-alienation: "I don't wanna go out.." she repeats, over and over, each iteration ramping up the velocity like something spinning and ultimately dispersing because of its own centrifugal force. It's a track which  - despite having not seen this one performed - resonates with the memory of Tunabunny's live presence, in which Herron in particular seems to enter some trance-like incantatory state; glazed eyes, shaking, the fevered lodestar for a band who often collapse inside their songs into some collective convulsion; it's a thrilling thing to witness.

The aforementioned press release informs that Kingdom Technology is a record made cheaply "on a slightly-damaged $2500 sound input device fished out of a University of Georgia dumpster by local artist Ted Kuhn," and it sounds like it; which is no slight. Rather, the record makes use of its constraints, invests them with meaning, conversely revelling in the freedom they afford: sketchy samples are cut off mid-rendition, sporadic electronic beats trail off like a shaky afterthought, scraps of vocal detritus - intakes of breath, throat-clearing, cracks in the voice, whispers and groans - all coalesce to render Kingdom Technology a particularly intimate, un-corralled document, straining at the reins and occasionally - in 'Power Breaks', in 'Not New Years' -  slipping them. Unbridled, you see a lot more flank - and muscle, and fur (synthetic or otherwise) – and (my kingdom for a horse!) that's a powerful thing.

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