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Near Future
Ideal Home Bob Cluness , June 7th, 2018 18:01

The debut from Mr Blancmange and Mr Bernholz, with a bit of Mr Ballard

Near Future is a collaboration between two people who, at first glance, seem to be at opposite ends of the electronic music continuum. On one end there is Blancmange’s Neil Arthur, whose strident, suburban English synth-pop observations achieved their apogee in their 80s classics Happy Families and Mange Tout before achieving a second breath of life with the recent albums Blanc Burn, Commuter 23 and Unfurnished Rooms. On the other end you have Jez Bernholz, a musician, visual artist and filmmaker whose live work as part of Gazelle Twin incorporates all manner of urban dystopian vectors and abstract noise accelerants, music that sits alongside a body of solo work that contains various DIY slanted synth musings.

So you have the arch 80s pop underdog put together with the post-millennial experimentalist. Ideal Home could have been a retro-fetishised 80s return with glitzy accessorising, or else something overtly ‘experimental’ with various conceptual abstractions and digitised noise jams that don’t go anywhere.

But there are no chintzy, clamorous pop tunes or outré avant noises to speak of. Instead, Near Future’s songs develop and flourish in a stately, almost luminous way. The more rhythmic songs, such as album openers ‘Ideal Home’ and ‘Field This’, have a relaxed breathing pulse that match the ponderous kicks, minimalist synth lines and ever so slightly machinic backing vocals. Many of the other tracks, such as ‘Overwhelmed’, ‘Come And Play’, ‘Gap In The Curtain’ and ‘Bulk Erase’, have a palatial and almost melancholic grandeur to them complete with chest-bursting, reverb-drenched synth swells. In a way, many of the songs in Ideal home are reminiscent of opulent synth ballads of the past such as John Foxx’s ‘The Garden’, OMD’s ‘Sealand’, and Blancmange’s ‘Waves’ - songs that heave with romanticism and a longing for a lost object that can’t be recovered. Mixed with this are various field recordings of nature and the everyday, sounds of pastoral suburbia and children playing mixed alongside numerous found fragments of discussions and the clinking of coffee mugs and tea spoons. Such moments give many of the tracks in Ideal Home a sense of being ‘found’ from another time, of being recorded in liminal situations that seem to defy the regular social niceties of the landscape.

It this sense of music being made in a moment where suburban time and place is out of joint is what gives Ideal Home its eerie power. There is a deep sense of a shared Ballardian worldview at play in this album. Blancmange and other 80s synth-pop luminaries looked towards Ballard’s ‘urban dystopia’ cycle of Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise; with Bernholz and his work with Gazelle Twin there is the middle class revolt and consumer driven fascism of Ballard’s final novels Millennial People and Kingdom Come. With Ideal Home there are definite signs of the social atomisation recurrent with Ballard. The lyrics in ‘Ideal Home’ (“I’m like a machine / In the ideal home / what makes me so different / so appealing, so desired?”) and ‘Thought Terminating In Your Night’ (“Though I try to reassure you / My words are eBay won / In fact I hear it too / Digitised sales pitch in every utterance”) for example hint at social interactions that are digitised and created by capitalist advertising.

But it’s the Ballardian sense of time and experience slowing and collapsing upon itself that presents itself most powerfully in Ideal Home, complete with the psychedelia of innerspace explored in such novels as The Unlimited Dream Company and short stories such as ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, ‘The Enormous Space’, and ‘Myths Of The Near Future’. Ideal Home tells of a suburban dreamscape where even the smallest closed-in spaces open up into vistas of wild speculation. Arthur’s obtuse and sometimes fractured lyrics open up to this new temporal world in ‘Overwhelmed’ where, alongside the glistening synths and the skeletal wisps of humanity, he sings: “Overwhelmed by time and distance / When the echo of a memory / Ricochets through the valley of years”; in ‘Field This’, memories overlap and become confused (“I remember when this just a car park / I remember when this was just a field”) as the world around him shutters to a halt (“Major delays on every junction / Network’s down, try semaphore”).

In ‘Kites Over Waitrose’ a panorama of glassy, crystalline synth notes and foaming whooshes of sound lap against the apocalyptic tone of Arthur’s deadpan vocal. ‘Come and Play’ sees humanity stuck in a near-frozen utopia of a neverending present, where voices and sounds come to you like ghosts from the near future. On ‘Fish And Chips’ and ‘Thought Terminating In Your Night’, the music slips into a trance-like fugue state as the ticking and pulsing machines take over and human thought descends into a pleasurable stasis before being punctuated by Arthur’s claustrophobic and hemmed vocals (from a broom closet? a wardrobe?).

This feeling of enclosure and being increasingly shut off from the world is further punctuated in ‘Dawn’, where the serenity of John Foxx’s ‘Garden’ is punctuated by paranoia and surreal menace; the world of songbirds and bursts of tribalistic rhythms threaten your peace of mind, causing Bernholz to retreat to the internalised safe space of home, complete with “coffee headaches” and “orange squash as thick as blood”. He’s trapped in an increasingly maze-like world of “endless doorways / to the house that I hid in / tongue tied and barrel chested”.

Ideal Home seems like an album where time and progression between 1982 and 2018 have become tangled and gunked up, although not in a negative way. Two musicians from two different cultural time zones who come together under shared interests and concerns, and the result is synth music that paints a land where modernity has either accelerated beyond measure or broken or repeatedly circled in on itself to the point where little makes sense anymore. It’s an album where things are operating at the barest fringes of perception, where even the smallest space, such as a garden or bedroom, can engulf you in a world of delights or horrors, depending on your point of view.