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Album Of The Week

Deeper And Deeper: Ministry of Tall Tales By Sote
Oliver Cookson , February 29th, 2024 09:59

On the latest album of digital wizardry from Tehran-based electronic producer Sote, nothing is quite what it seems, finds Oliver Cookson

In 2024, deception, disinformation and an inability to differentiate fact from fiction are woven into the fabric of modern life. The global ubiquity of destabilising political forces, the ever-polarising algorithms of social media and the rapid emergence of sophisticated AI technology has led us into a bewildering hall of mirrors in which only our immediate physical environments feel real.

Whilst the scourges of disinformation and social engineering are felt globally, recent efforts by Iran’s Revolutionary guard to undermine democracy have undoubtedly accelerated the process of tech-driven oppression in the region. In the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, AI-facilitated technologies have played a significant role in the Iranian government’s clampdown on dissent.

Seeking to crush the country’s growing ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ movement, the IRGC has recently utilised the power of generative AI to target prominent feminists with cyber-attacks. Government imposed internet blackouts and facial recognition technology have also been used prominently as tools to deter public protest. As a weapon of control, the manipulation of technology and information has proven itself to be formidable. The human consequences of this weaponisation will continue to play out in the months and years to come.

On his new release Iranian producer Sote pushes the limits of computer-based music technology to thoroughly inhabit the dizzying nightmare of oppression in the digital age. Ministry of Tall Tales expertly utilises the cold, indifferent mechanics of modern production software to explore themes of misinformation, bigotry, corruption and fear, conjuring an inhuman dreamworld of near-permanent distress.

Opener ‘River of Pain’ pulls us into Sote’s frigid universe with a looping arpeggio that subtly shifts and shimmers. The apparent minimalism of the arrangement draws our attention to immensely detailed textures, with the delicate grain of finely-crafted timbres filling the macro-focus of our mind’s eye. Intermittent synth flares shoot up from the mix adding drama but certainly not warmth.  

On ‘Lips Seeking the Forbidden’, rhythmic elements fall away and leave us to contemplate the breathtaking sound design and disorientating dimensions of the strange space Sote creates. There are sounds here that may have been sourced from traditional Iranian instrumentation but it’s difficult to tell. They are processed and abstracted so thoroughly that we can no longer trust our own powers of perception. Nothing is knowable.

‘Motion in Morality’ introduces a harrowing, drumless rhythm that uses an almost familiar but suitably uncanny mode. A layer of what sounds like a plucked, heavily manipulated string instrument enters and fills out the mix, building into a dread-inducing cacophony. Droning woodwind-like sounds swoop in and out of vision producing a feeling akin to being caught up in a violent murmuration. Yet, as overwhelming as it is, the arrangement never feels overly dense and a sense of clinical precision is maintained throughout.    Sote’s love of noise and industrial music is clear. The intro to ‘Kangaroo Court’ uses the kind of clanging machine sounds that wouldn’t feel out of place amidst the horrifying soundscapes of Coil’s Horse Rotovator. However, the key difference here is the lack of recognisably human elements. Whereas much industrial music conjures internal states of psychic distress, the territory of Sote’s nightmare vision feels virtual; a hi-res digital rendering of a terrifying artificial reality, a feeling compounded as the track bounces maniacally like some hellish video-game soundtrack.

Unexpected shifts give the album an erratic, almost schizophrenic atmosphere, mirroring the kind of cognitive dissonance induced by disinformation and government propaganda. Just as we acclimatise to one reality, Sote pulls the rug out from under us. The swelling, whirring drones of ‘Separating Ingrediants of Rituals’ once again throw us for a loop, forcing us into a new alien dimension. Again, noise-heads will find much to appreciate in the rich layers of distorted synths.   

Such an inhuman record often feels as remorseless and unfeeling as the brutal systems that inspired it. However, the two closing tracks represent an interesting concession to melody and pathos. The entrance of ethereal pads on ‘Propagandistic Ambition’ calls to mind the gorgeous, smog-ridden textures of Tim Hecker’s 2023 release, No Highs and album-closer ‘1401 Beautiful Souls’ sees us home with a lush build of gently fluttering drones. This wistful moment is brilliantly effective as a poignant reminder of the human cost of oppression. 

In his 2016 documentary Hypernormalisation, filmmaker Adam Curtis describes the process by which “political technologists” like Vladislav Surkov eroded the Russian people’s grip on reality. In Curtis’ words, “Surkov’s aim was not just just to manipulate people but to go deeper and play with and undermine their very perception of the world so they are never sure what is really happening”. Openly using state funds to support opposition political movements (often with conflicting aims and ideologies), Surkov turned Russian politics into an unknowable theatre stage in which the true nature of reality could not be ascertained by those in the audience. 

Such strategies, Curtis argues, were exported to the west where they were utilised by Donald Trump in his ascent to power. Trump'’s campaign relied on what Curtis describes as “shapeshifting”; a constantly morphing public persona in which Trump’s true principles and agenda could never truly be identified. This, Curtis claims, irrevocably changed the rules of the game. 

Ministry of Tall Tales paints a disturbing portrait of this sinister new world. Never succumbing to melodrama or cliche, Sote’s talent lies in his expert restraint, incredible eye for detail and keen awareness of narrative structure. The uncanny realms explored across these tracks serve as a chilling manifestation of terror in the face of state tyranny and deception.

In an interview with The Wires Tom Faber in 2017, Sote said of his own music, “I need to hear something that has never existed before”. Ministry of Tall Tales undeniably achieves this aim. It builds a world and maps a territory entirely of its own, but the record also succeeds in achieving the aims set out by electronic music’s early pioneers. By vividly depicting the warped reality of the present, Sote makes good on the genre’s foundational commitment to exploring the future. Whilst this dystopian future looks set to be a crushing continuation of the grim conditions we currently face, Sote’s unparalleled ability to chart this bleak trajectory is awe-inspiring.