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A Quietus Interview

A Forbidden Spell: Fire-Toolz Interviewed
Antonio Poscic , March 7th, 2023 10:24

Antonio Poscic talks to Angel Marcloid about AI, nostalgia and her incredible future fusion Fire-Toolz project. Portraits by Eliza Janus

“My only goal is to make music that feels right and really resonates with me, so if my own music isn't making me cry or laugh or feel something really strong, then I won’t make it.” Angel Marcloid is speaking via Zoom from her home in a town outside Chicago. The call has only been going for a quarter of an hour and the conversation has turned to maximalism in art when this simple and, in hindsight, revealing thought makes all the conflicting ideas I had previously had about the musician and producer’s multifaceted work coalesce into a single vision.

While Marcloid has worked under many names over the past decade – including the bubbly fusion of Nonlocal Forest and the hypnagogic sample-based collaging of MindSpring Memories – Fire-Toolz has gradually grown into her main vessel. More than any other of her projects, it brings together styles so alien to each other that their fusion might appear like a forbidden spell from some ancient tome, too dangerous to be uttered but too tempting to be left alone. Yet in her practice, the synthesis of smooth jazz, breakcore, death metal, ambient, vaporwave, AOR, pop, and slivers from a myriad other genres doesn’t sound like a forced gimmick. The result is utterly affecting and demonstrates a deep understanding and love for each of these styles as they become tied to the core of herself and her life.

“I'm assembling music like a sculpture, so there is a lot of thought to it, but I don't know that I'm thinking those thoughts,” she says talking about her creative process. When the point of maximalism is brought up again, she adds: “If I want to keep adding things, keep rearranging things, piling things on, and having a bunch of jagged changes and textures, that's just what I felt like doing. Then there are some songs that are a lot more open and a lot more simple, and those parts just felt complete that way. So I do like maximalism in a way, but maximalism for the sake of being maximalist I find is kind of disingenuous.”

This intimate and mindful approach to music-making, which seems to equally draw from the conscious and subconscious, extends beyond sound in Marcloid’s work as Fire-Toolz. Her recent releases in particular, like 2020’s touching Rainbow Bridge made in memory of her cat Breakfast or 2021’s sprawling Eternal Home, are thematically rich, but it often requires time for their meaning to become fully realised. “When I'm creating the music, it's just all stream of consciousness, there's no real goal – I'm just improvising really, then I look back, and I feel like I wrote a story, but I didn't know I was writing it,” Marcloid explains. One of these narratives also anchors Fire-Toolz’s new album on Hausu Mountain, the evocatively titled I Am Upset Because I See Something That Is Not There.

I Am Upset continues the evolution of Fire-Toolz’s vernacular in a direction that was hinted at by the 2022 EP I Will Not Use The Body's Eyes Today and nurtures a more focused, fluid approach. While Marcloid’s signature stylistic blitz is still alive and kicking, the stream of disparate elements within and between the album’s twelve cuts flows down a gentler slope here, often occupying forms that reveal exquisite pop and ambient sensibilities. If you close your eyes and let yourself be carried by the music, the alteration of lyrical saxophone phrases, blistering blast beats, and jumping synth pads becomes incredibly soothing. In turn, this makes the album feel like one of Marcloid’s most meditative works to date, even gesturing towards some sort of hidden healing power.

However, names like ‘Mantra-ing & Golgotha: Double-Bind (Prequel)’ and ‘Above All Else I Want To See’ suggest a deeper and stronger sentiment behind the music. “Most of the time, my album titles, song titles, and even lyrics have multiple meanings, and they're connected in some way.” When asked about I Am Upset she says specifically that the majority of the songs on the album are about trauma. “The title relates to that, because a lot of times with trauma, people perceive danger when there isn't any, and threats when there's not really a threat,” says Marcloid. “It's not just an album, it's all kinds of things, it later helps me work through things."

Take the opening cut ‘It Is Happening Again (Thank You, Council Of Saturn!)’, for example. Right at its beginning, before a poignant piano roll and bright synth pads take over, we hear the voice of Marcloid’s wife. “Angel, it’s not happening again,” she pleads with a worried but comforting inflection in what feels like a symbolic and very personal moment. “There will be a part of you that knows that it's not happening, and another part that believes it is, so there's both going on in your body, in your mind, and often one of them is in control,” Marcloid says. “There's a lot of times where I've perceived a threat, and my wife had to assure me that there isn't one.”

Beyond its emotional weight, on that same song we also find one of many moments of filigree brilliance on the record. Here, a shimmering guitar solo comes roaring into life, before making way for an equally shredding synthesiser. This gorgeous sequence is reminiscent of a trope often employed by Dream Theater. The reference to the progressive metal stalwarts is by no means an accident, and Marcloid is candid when I ask her about the influence they had on her growing up. “I'm really passionate about any genre that might stick out in my songs, and it's a conglomeration of different eras of my life when I'd get really into a certain type of music,” she explains. Aside from progressive metal, her earliest interests included an idiosyncratic mixture of death metal acts such as Obituary and Morbid Angel, electronic mavericks like Orbital, and industrial bands KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails – outfits and styles whose refined touch can be heard in her music to this day.

When asked whether she is conscious of all the styles that make her music and whether she ever considered focusing on one aspect of her sound, she rejects the idea emphatically. “I don't have the ability to really focus on any one genre, I feel it’s unreasonable to limit yourself, I'm just making what I want to make, and it naturally has all of these elements, because they're all there, they're all in my toolbox, they're all there in my memories”, she says. “If I write something that's really jazzy, and then it's time to do vocals, I'm just gonna do whatever I want to do, and if putting death metal vocals over a corny fusion part, then that just makes sense to me. I like both kinds of music, so why would I go: ‘Oh, that's not right, that doesn't fit, you shouldn't scream over jazz, that's not normal’?”

While she had no musicians in her family growing up, she describes her parents as music lovers who supported her ambitions. She studied drums and later guitar, but never quite managed to fit in with the stifling academic approach to art, she recalls. “When you're just starting out with an instrument, drum teachers want you to learn your rudiments and they want you to learn very basic, simple jazz songs and marching band type stuff – I just hated all of that.” Instead, her real passion lay elsewhere. “I'd go home and play along to a Metallica song or I'd play along to Rush songs and Ratt and Van Halen and stuff like that.” Still, when her masterful guitar shredding on Fire-Toolz albums is brought up, she acknowledges that some early guitar lessons did help her get where she is today. “My guitar teacher was definitely 20 times better than me, but it was a different kind of better – I was very in control of my progress.”

Coming back to the topic of metal and aural extremity, I bring up the anecdote of a friend who mentioned vibing along to something peaceful and soothing on a particularly dreary day, only to then reveal that he was listening to Lorna Shore, a band known for their powerful, extremely technical variant of deathcore. At first, it might sound counterintuitive, but the essence of that music – and the music of Devin Townsend and most metal in general – is tender and sentimental. Marcloid connects with this concept right away. “I don't really differentiate between Lorna Shore and Laraaji, you know? That's my point. It's all beautiful, it's all intense, it's all meaningful. Lorna Shore doesn't intentionally put any kind of spirituality in their music that I can tell, but it's a spiritual experience listening to them.”

She underlines this point by recollecting an event from earlier in her day. She was driving to a hair appointment and put on music from the YouTube channel SLAM WORLDWIDE that specialises in death metal, slam, and grind. “I just relaxed looking at the landscape, looking at the fields and the trees and everything, and listening to the most disgusting music you could possibly think of. And it's very fitting. It feels very natural.” But despite her love of extreme genres, 1970s and 80s arena rock, emo, and electronic music, her real obsession can be found in jazz and jazz fusion. When asked about smooth jazz, what it means to her, and what role it plays in her own music, she ascribes an almost mythical quality to it.

“One of my favourite things is to feel comfortable and comforted and safe, and listening to 1980s jazz fusion is an extremely safe kind of sound,” she tells me. Some of her favourite acts in the field include a number of contemporary and vintage bands like The Rippingtons, Galia Social, and Plini: “But the reason why I got into it so heavily is because it harkened back to my really early years of background music, TV shows, movies, and video games. And the Weather Channel! I would leave it on all day on the TV in my room, and I'd always look forward to the breaks where they did the forecast. There was always some kind of new agey jazz song that would come on.”

A different but equally important side to Marcloid’s aesthetic is manifested visually, not sonically. Her covers, artworks, videos, and even social media presence evoke those flashy, imperfect but irresistible 1990s and 2000s computer graphics – think Geocities, Angelfire, and MySpace – and reveal her connection with early to mid 2010s post-internet art. Although most post-digital visual artists and musicians that dabbled in internet-aware microgenres have since become irrelevant or moved on to whatever the post-conceptual idiom of the hour is, Fire-Toolz persists. “I think a lot of times when something becomes popular, a lot of people abandon it very quickly because they don't want to be trendy, and they're kind of too cool for it,” she clarifies. “What I do is so genuine and authentic, and there's pretty much no irony there. Other than a bit of humour here and there, it's really just my heart on my sleeve.”

Marcloid believes that even without that whole scene, her art would have still ended up similar to what she does today. Where does her striking aesthetic really come from, then? Genuine nostalgia, it would seem. “I’m nostalgic for my childhood and 1990s computer graphics and stuff like that, so when I use those sounds and those sights I'm really just saying that stuff really moves me, and when I see it, it reminds me of simpler times.” At that point, I start to wonder if we lost most of the early internet’s innocence. “It wasn't a social disaster, it was glorified newspapers and telephone calls and letters in the mail, except it was all in your computer,” she expands. “I get all kind of warm and cosy feelings when I think about the chat rooms I used to go into and the guest books that I used to sign in, the webrings, IRC, and Usenet.”

Back in the present, apart from kindred artists on labels like Hausu Mountain and Orange Milk, and musicians such as Euglossine and Shmu – one of the many artists she mixes and masters albums for – Marcloid seems to have become a unique voice in music. Hyper pop is currently more intriguing in the realm of potential than full realisation. It appears as a distant cousin to her work, even as she mentions Trust Fund Ozu and Cocojoey as intriguing examples of combining mind-bending metal and jazz with the usual hyper pop aesthetics. She’s already working on new material as we speak, all of it slated to come out under the Fire-Toolz moniker, which has more or less consumed all her other projects. Will the upcoming albums be better than I Am upset, I ask cheekily? “I think it's the most realised version of myself and that the compositions are the best that they've ever been, but three albums from now, I'll probably look back at it and there will be a point where I'm, like, that's not that good!”

Looking to the future of the internet and society in general, I can’t resist opening the can of worms labeled Artificial Intelligence. Unsurprisingly, Marcloid has an optimistic if careful vision. “There are a lot of great things you can do with it. And then you can also use it for harm. I think that's the way it is for any new kind of technology. If human beings were responsible and ethical and empathetic, we would be able to use AI in really good ways.” On the topic of fear spreading among artists, she likens it to technological advances in our past. “Every new technology terrifies the shit out of people, but then we always learn to adapt. In the late 1970s, musicians thought that drum machines were going to put drummers out of business. They were terrified. Look at us now, even rock bands are using electronic drums in their music.”

As for using AI in her own practice, she once again keeps an open mind. “I would love to just have a piece of music generated and then find a cool section and loop it and then write music around it. So it'll be interesting to see how things go. It's going to be revolutionary. It's going to be scary. It's exciting. It's going to be traumatic. It's going to be helpful, all of these different things all the time.”

I Am Upset Because I See Something That Is Not There is out via Hausu Mountain on 7 April