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Lifetime Harry Stott , September 13th, 2019 09:01

Lifetime by Klein may not be for the faint hearted, but the London artist's exploration of “the black diasporic experience” make for truly compelling listening, finds Harry Stott

Klein’s new record, Lifetime, is not for the faint hearted. Nor is it for those looking for music to switch off with, getting lost in inviting melodies and satisfying resolutions. We are operating in an especially esoteric realm here, even by the standards of the kind of musique concrète-influenced, field recording based sound art that you would have to say Lifetime falls under. 

This is not the kind of record that explores sound for sound’s sake; it attempts to create a specific narrative through the work. While found sounds are exposed and developed to add depth and dark pigments, Klein posits the record as deeply personal, to be listened to as you would read someone’s diary.

If it is indeed a sonic diary, Klein seems to conceive her existence as a waking nightmare. Only the briefest of moments – layers of beats on ‘Claim’, the misshapen drum solo on ‘Silent’ – focus on purely rhythmic exploration: the rest is made up of clashing pads and the gristle of static and noise.

‘Enough is Enough’ sees strange, looping chords chunter with maddening predictability, evoking a descent into insanity matched by ‘We Are Almost There’. The latter should, on the face of it, be rather beautiful: it starts with a shimmering, impressionistic choral ostinato that is later joined by Klein’s easy falling vocal lines. But the irregular cycle of that choral motif makes the song entirely disconcerting, and once you reach the ending, where maniacal laughing and nondescript muttering take the lead, hysteria is the only diagnosis.

This only gets more severe. The sound of a scratching, burrowing creature begins ‘Listen and See as They Take’, digging us deep into a hellish world as the music descends into an uncomfortable, grating din of white noise. That this animal is actually a recording of burning embers only confirms the sense of inferno and chaos.

As you might have guessed from the review so far, chaos is a consistent motif on Lifetime, reappearing on ‘For What it’s Worth’ in what sounds like a looping fascist chant, a warped recording of some dystopian digital protest.

The album’s most interesting moments arrive at points when recognisable things become distorted, grotesque facsimiles of their former selves. The conversation on ‘Honour’ achieves this in its deliberately frustrating depiction of a family argument. Two voices relentlessly speak over one another in garbled fury, just too quiet to really make out, with only the words ‘gaslighting’, ‘hardened’ and ‘your father’ appearing from the milieu. There’s anger there – some unresolved feud – but you can’t make out why, and the effect is chilling. This theme continues with deep choral samples on ‘Camelot is Coming’ and the deconstructed spoken word track ‘99’, both of which make the familiar and comfortable seem twisted and deformed.

Klein writes that much of the record’s narrative is an exploration of “the black diasporic experience”, that it is “steeped in black expressive styles of the past”. In this sense it feels like the musical incarnation of a Jordan Peele film: a gnarled nightmare of noise and sound that dissects the tradition that it situates itself in. While Peele’s oeuvre takes aim at the whiteness of the horror genre, placing it within the context of the black experience instead, Klein addresses sound art from a black perspective and simultaneously subverts both. In warping a gospel chorus and citing the influence of great black creatives like Spencer Williams and James Cleveland, Klein paradoxically celebrates black creative excellence by placing it within a tortured sound art context, a place where it is rarely traditionally seen. It’s profoundly unsettling and certainly reminiscent of Get Out (and what’s more, the terrifying figure on the album cover would be right at home in Peele’s most recent movie, Us). 

Ignoring the slight imperfections in the music itself – it strays into self-indulgence at times, as on ‘Honour’, which spends the second half needlessly stumbling around a relatively uninteresting rhythmic motif – Klein’s motivation for the record is deeply original, a fascinating example of what can happen when you shun precedent and subvert expectations. The result is truly compelling.