The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

Memes To An End: Oli XL’s Anxious Electronica
Zac Cazes , August 1st, 2019 09:28

Rogue Intruder, Soul Enhancer, the debut album by Stockholm’s Oli XL, routes despondency through relatable humour, finds Zac Cazes

The Scandinavian internet music scene is thriving right now. From Varg’s tour de force on Posh Isolation earlier in the year to the masterful A&R work going on at Year0001, Scandinavian labels and artists are taking the underground electronic music world by storm. Despite the wide variety of musical genres that this Scandi scene produces, one of the most exciting things about it is that it all seems interconnected. Genres and labels start to lose their relevance as these internet-age musicians condense multifarious influences and collaborations into short releases. But one thing that a lot of the male artists in the new Scandinavian scene have in common is a simultaneously ironic and sincere approach to discussing the fragility of contemporary masculinity.

This is the case on Oli XL’s debut LP, where whimsical sonics tend to mask a deep despondency. The online spaces in which this record has proliferated, Facebook groups such as ‘electronic avantgardeposting’ for instance, aren’t known for their light-heartedness. There is something performative about those types of insular spaces where the very name of the space ensures that a lot of the work shared there ends up sounding similar and taking itself too seriously. The electronic avant-garde seems like the natural place to voice concerns about the effects that the latest communication technologies have on the self, but too often these concerns are raised in the same tired way: harsh soundscapes of broken industrial beats, complex sound design collages and text-to-speech generators with little or no space for melody or what a listener may recognise as familiar ground.

There is a formality here that seems like a way for artists to represent the feeling of isolation that superfast communication ultimately produces. Alienating work becomes almost a way of legitimising the artist’s pain: if it is abstract enough, discussion of an artist’s pain avoids making listeners cringe and becomes seemingly worthwhile. However, this self-indulgent attitude also says ‘you’ll never understand me unless you’re like me, and unless you’re like me you’re not worth my time.’ Like the CDs that Oval scratched up to make early glitch music from, the self-isolating world of internet-based avant-garde electronica has quickly become repetitive.

This is why music like Rogue Introducer, Soul Enhancer is so welcome. By no means is it a happy record, nevertheless Oli XL is not afraid to have some fun. From the first track, ‘Cygnostik,’ with its jovial stuttering synth that seems to come straight out of an Oval track and its stop-start syncopated drum patterns, Oli XL establishes this LP as a space where playfulness is permitted – even recommended. His grand-master’s palette of synths and processed samples feels more inspired by the warm world of deep house and ambient music than the stark sounds of avant-garde electronica. His vocals make a conscious effort towards melody and catchiness – notably on ‘Mimetic’ – and they’re mostly processed to the point where they’re almost comical, the voice of a small animated chipmunk, autotuned and roboticised. Under all of this, punchy and clubby UK garage-inspired drums skip along in unconventional broken patterns, going nowhere fast.

All of this ebullience hides a darker edge. Like the depression memes that became popular on social media in the mid 2010s (in which “my depression” and “my anxiety” were personified in subtitled TV stills), Oli XL uses a warm, familiar aesthetic to draw listeners into a world which allows him space to discuss a dark vulnerability. The drums hit harder than you’d expect, while the vocal production can verge on creepy and the lyrics address a digital inertia comparable to Radiohead’s ‘Fitter, Happier.’

On ‘Clumsy,’ Oli XL’s tongue in cheek sincerity gets sinister. “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” he repeats endlessly in his pitched-up voice, echoing Beck’s chorus on ‘Loser’, a 90s hit that also hides its deep-seated despair behind layers of irony and fey psychedelia that become indistinguishable from one another. In the early 90s, however, sincerity was still available as a method of producing music as a young man. Beck’s faux-monotone delivery was merely one of the many options open to him at a time where Kurt Cobain was openly discussing suicidal tendencies on MTV.

Today, rising male youth suicide rates suggest that male mental health issues are discussed only with difficulty. Matty Healy’s recent attempts to revive forms of musical sincerity leaves most adult listeners cringing: it seems both pretentious and simplistic, and a huge step back from how much expression in contemporary music has developed over the past twenty years. But whether you like the 1975’s music or not, the communication breakdown that Healy notes definitely exists. It leaves young men feeling isolated, vulnerable to radicalisation by hate groups such as the far-right or the reductive self-ghettoisation of misogynistic 'incel' communities.

Oli XL’s whimsy is simply a way to deal with representing a crippling sense of self-doubt in a moment where young men’s sincerity is often rejected within artistic circles. Perhaps the internet has revealed just how common these feelings are, which has in turn rendered their discussion obsolete. In order to communicate these feelings in an engaging way, millennials have created a whole language of memes that have progressively become more abstract as new memes are built on the old ones.

In a uniquely millennial way then, Oli XL has had to turn to relatable humour to communicate a profound and systemic hopelessness. On ‘DnL,’ a tinny high-pitched robot teases in a singsong voice: ‘boring, lame.’ However, the song titles, ‘Hesitate’ and ‘Imposter,’ seem to point towards an actual anxious imposter complex. Ironically, Oli XL seems to think that for people to take his sadness seriously, he needs to make a joke out of it. At some point in the foreseeable future, we might come to expect more maturity from Oli XL. For now, the sad clown act is a refreshing take on avant-garde electronica.