Occupy Pop! Your Guide To Revolution by Mary Ocher

Berliner takes radical politics and 12th-century Persian poetry and sets them to an infectious disco beat, finds Ilia Rogatchevski

Mary Ocher reclines on a rubber dinghy that is perilously adrift at sea. Her voice lifts above the waters as a shuffling backbeat dominates the track. We see several characters inhabiting an island made of trash. They’re absorbed in their phones, seemingly unaware of their dire surroundings, watching Ocher signalling for help on their screens. As the synths and drums (performed by Mats Folkesson and Theo Taylor of Ocher’s backing band Your Government) lock into a propulsive groove, and the sea burns around her, Ocher urges the listener to “sympathize with us, because our corpses are nice”.

This is the video for ‘Sympathize’, the lead single from Ocher’s seventh album Your Guide To Revolution. Like most of her work, Your Guide… is a political record and follows the thread first initiated by The West Against The People (2017), which analysed the changing identity of the West. Your Guide… is more didactic in its approach. ‘Sympathize’ in particular speaks of the cynicism intrinsic to politics and the injustice it engenders. The symbolism in the video and lyrics not only point to those who manipulate public opinion about refugees but also acknowledges our complicity in the crisis through our inaction. As much of Europe shifts to the right and culture wars dominate political discourse, ‘Sympathize’ – somewhat perversely – captures the zeitgeist with an infectious disco beat.

As an artist, Ocher’s political perspective leans radically leftward. Her tendency to question authority, nationalism, capitalism, and religious dominance can be traced to her early life growing up in Israel as a Moscow-born émigré of Jewish-Ukrainian descent. Her experience of xenophobia and nationalism in the Israeli school system is recounted in her autobiographical comic MOOP! and mirrored in the album’s penultimate track ‘Museum Of Childhood Terror’. Possibly channelling a prison guard with her vocal performance, Ocher describes an exhibition of distressing things experienced in childhood including the “terrible fear of not belonging here” and the “horrible fright of others in sight”.

Rejecting this environment led Ocher to resettle in Berlin in 2007. At the time, the city was cheap, particularly if you lived communally, and these circumstances allowed her to focus on making a living exclusively from music. It’s a seemingly impossible proposition today, and yet Your Guide… comes packaged with an essay explaining how to do just this. In A Guide to Radical Living, Ocher draws from her experience of “living comfortably with just enough” and suggests ways of “resisting the rules by finding ways of survival that are not presented to us as options”, like making the most of grant money or refusing to buy things on credit. The revolution that Ocher proposes is not a militaristic coup but instead a form of cultural reconditioning that prompts us to reassess the roles we play within the capitalist framework.

Two of the album’s etudes flirt with humour. ‘Digital Molam’ distorts the essence of Thai folk with a kaleidoscopic prism that could have been designed by Kieran Hebden of Four Tet. ‘Autotune’, on the other hand, recalls recent debates about AI by suggesting that your life could be improved by tuning it artificially. Significant sections of the album are energetic instrumentals. The bass thumps and teasing melody on ‘Earthmother’, for example, could easily score a Soviet cartoon, while in the short and sweet ‘Swedish Samoa’ Ocher seasons the prevalent Cumbia rhythms with her cascading saturated synth. In the song’s accompanying video, directed by the digital artist Stacie Ant, we see the band, dressed in sparkling swimsuits, jiving in a hyperpop jungle that teems with unicorn skeletons and luminescent tentacles.

There are several collaborations, too. ‘I Am The Occupation’, which features Serafina Steer’s hallucinatory harp playing, evokes the spirit of The Raincoats with its elastic riff. The track invites us to dance and “sing along on a hell-bound ride” as the narrator admits that she “gamble[s] with lives”. ‘When God Held My Hand’, written and performed with the Irish musician Nina Hynes, features nebulous voices guided by percussive strings that blanket the composition in an eerie mist. Elsewhere, Yukari Aotani and Anselmo Holm’s violins on the album’s final track ‘For All We Know (The World May End Tomorrow)’ underpin Ocher’s sorrowful piano. Subtle at first, the strings swell in the middle section as Ocher mourns humanity’s unwillingness to step away from the precipice of its own making.

The album peaks with ‘The Rubaiyat Medley’. This suite of three tracks reimagines Dorothy Ashby’s late 1960s compositions inspired by the 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby is an excellent example of spiritual mind-expanding jazz and even demonstrates Ashby’s command of the koto. Ocher’s take is psychedelic too but plays down the content of Khayyam’s text by masking the words with a vocoder. Part I transcends the smoky backrooms of its beginnings with a funky bassline and hot snares that bring to mind the Anatolian grooves of bands like Tel Aviv’s Şatellites. Meanwhile, Parts II & III prime the room for a good time with the slow and seductive interplay of bass, synth and percussion that recall Patrick Cowley’s pioneering sleazy electronica. Following through with the retro vibes is the suite’s highly stylised music video. Directed by Ocher, it channels Sergei Parajanov’s poetic masterwork The Color of Pomegranates (1969), but distils the ambitions of the original down to a modest DIY scale.

The origins of the album go back to 2019 when Ocher toured the US with Your Government. Much of the material was written on the road as the band navigated bemused audiences, unreliable vehicles and toy drum kits. The bulk of the recording took place later that year with the microtonal tuba player and sound artist Peder Simonsen at Palazzo Stabile, in Italy, and mixed in the UK by Mike Lindsay of Tunng. Momentum slowed down due to the pandemic, but the resulting body of work was eventually spread across two sister albums: last year’s pensive Approaching Singularity: Music for The End of Time and Your Guide to Revolution. Both records swing but whereas the former is laced with an insular melancholy, the latter looks outward and is often uplifting in spite of the loaded subject matter.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today