When you listen to the soundtrack to a horror film without watching the corresponding film the power of the music can be somewhat diminished, not in all cases of course but in enough. When you listen to an ambient album that plays on the same tropes as horror films and has no corresponding film then I think the opposite occurs. I came to this conclusion as I listened to Mechanical Society by XeroPulse, a dark ambient, industrial black metal outfit from Cork.
What makes a horror soundtrack so impactful? Is the music dependent upon the film? Do the images of the horror film imprint themselves on the music and therefore transfer from the music to the minds of the film’s watchers? What is the relationship? Is the film dependent on the music to make any sort of meaningful impact? Which medium actually contains the horror?
In a way, of course, both of them do. Horror does not depend solely on one sense to deliver terror. It relies on all of them for a complete experience. Horror soundtracks, Mechanical Society included for the sake of the review, often have to job of filling in the blank spaces, the cracks, quiet moments. They are responsible for subtlety speaking to the listener’s mind and telling them what lies just beneath the surface of the images. It’s a difficult task because the music must be subtle, it cannot overpower the imagery yet it must be strong enough to stand on its own. I do not envy composers tasked with a horror soundtrack.
Onto Mechanical Society and XeroPulse now. I’ve been talking about horror soundtracks because in my estimation that is exactly the kind of story Mechanical Society is telling (feel free to disagree, that is the essence of discourse). The story is one of impending doom, people whistling blissfully while approaching the edge of a cliff. It’s not body horror or supernatural horror here, it’s the fear of losing oneself in a sea of sameness. It’s an existential dread of losing individuality. We are all being forced to a “Unity by Diversity” mindset that is killing us. We are being augmented more and more by machines and computers to the point where we don’t know up from down. We don’t know what is human and what is mechanical. How can we fight something if we don’t know if we are fighting to regain our humanity or fighting to regain the machine? It’s not horror in the traditional sense but the soundtrack definitely plays on the emotions of terror, frustration, panic, and unease. The entire album is subtle, it plants ideas and lets them grow in the minds of the listener rather than outright stating them. It allows the music to feel more personal to the listener, as if they have a say in the way the story goes, a shining example of four dimensional story telling. So what are we? Humans with machines or machines with human parts? What do we fight for? Do we fight at all? What path leads to a better world? Can there be a better world or are we doomed to walk off the edge of a cliff no matter what path we take? One this is clear, that we cannot remain motionless and we cannot go back. It’s not a matter of choice here, the listener-protagonist quite literally cannot go back, it’s like they’re on a conveyer belt (quite an apt metaphor if I do say so myself). What happens to us? What happens to the protagonist? Well you have to listen yourself to discover that.
The music of the album is top notch. Anything that involves piano and violin is going to be beloved by me, a man who can’t play either to save his life. The music is subtle and soft but it plays tricks on the mind. With the use of field recordings to back up the music, XeroPulse adds depth and a sense of realism to the album. It feels grittier, scarier. If feels as if it could actually happen, or maybe it is. The melodies are deep and rich, giving the listener a full range of tonal emotions and feelings, allowing them to see the intricacies of the world through the music. Worlds like this one in Mechanical Society, are terrifying because it plays on the fears and insecurities of the listeners, it sounds like it’s a real word. XeroPulse has done an excellent job here. The sound is not too industrial nor is it too ambient, it lies somewhere in the middle, at a crossroads so to speak.
If you are a fan of unconventional horror films, soundtracks, or neo classical ambient then this album will be a hit. It’s an amazing, low-key album that will be a gem in any collection. It has a hidden strength that comes out the more you listen to it and ponder the meaning of the album. Give it a shot!
Listen and support!