The Cognitive Dissonance of the New: “Hidden Fields” by The Telescopes

The Telescopes
Hidden Fields
Tapete Records

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As the poet of post-humanity, novelist William Gibson (Neuromancer, etc.) understands that the dividing line that once separated technology and humanity has been erased to the point where people can’t imagine a time when such a dividing line ever existed. This erasure affects everything about us, even our bodies. The fact of the matter is most of us in the first-world would be dead without inoculations, couldn’t see without glasses, and couldn’t survive without technology.

This technology is corporate in nature – which means that we, the post-humans, are essentially corporate entities. Our very being is corporate, from the medicines that contribute to our longevity to the way in which media (TV, cell phones, MP3s, etc.) merges with our senses to dictate the way we perceive the world.

Writing about Sonic Youth, musician Jack Brewer said, “Once the music leaves your head, it’s already compromised.”

Brewer must not have read Gibson because, if he had done, he wouldn’t have made that statement. Today, there’s no such thing as “compromise” – a word that has extremely negative connotations. How can a “head,” whose very existence is a blend of the technological and the human, compromise anything?

The heroes of Gibson’s novels know that they are technology. They’re known as cyberpunks because they embrace technology and use it to undermine the corporations that seek to imprison them in a hegemonic matrix.

It’s no accident that these heroes are punks. Like them, our most important musicians of the past 25-30 years– the former members of Sonic Youth, Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and many crucial underground psych, metal, and noise bands – take technology, turn it against corporations, and, in the process, undermine their authority.

Having recently revisited the entire Telescopes’ catalogue, I can safely argue that Stephen Lawrie, from his band’s first releases in the late-1980s to Hidden Fields (which comes out tomorrow), has been a punk pioneer in using the technologies of rock and roll to create sonic cognitive dissonance that jolts listeners into an awareness of the post-human condition.

Hidden Fields, therefore, functions as a reminder of what Lawrie has given listeners – an empowering sense of fearlessness that can only be achieved through embracing technology, deconstructing it, and re-presenting it in unheard of forms.

(Just think about the way in which The Telescopes (1992) provided “shoegaze” with a new vocabulary, Hungry Audio Tapes (2006) merged electronic and noise rock in a way that didn’t sound anything like Nine Inch Nails or any other contemporaneous corporate “industrial” band, and the two 20-minute pieces on HARM (2013) used feedback and distortion to challenge our understanding of what an “epic” soundscape could be.)

But Hidden Fields is more than just a reminder of Lawrie’s past triumphs. Rather, it’s a clarion call for listeners to be fearless as they work with him to feel and make Telescopes’ music. More, it’s a clarion call for listeners to bathe themselves in the cognitive dissonance of the new.

Sure, listeners have heard noise and drone rock before (this goes back as far as The Velvet Underground’s first two albums). But have they heard anything like album-opener “You Know the Way”? This Hidden Fields track, on which Lawrie’s collaborators St Deluxe shine, is held together by a pulsing, rhythmic drone, from which spikes of noise emerge. Lawrie’s voice is low in the mix, really working as another instrument.

The result? A song in which Lawrie, unlike My Bloody Valentine (whose noise and low-key vocals lead to beauty and comfort) and Sonic Youth (who keep the vocals high in the mix and include noise sections that for the most part structurally take the place of guitar solos or extended jams), truly defies expectations by making an unsettling mood rather than a “song” in the traditional sense of the word.

Likewise, “Absence” could be classified as ambient music. But Lawrie doesn’t allow his piece to create an atmosphere for a room (he’s the opposite of Brian Eno). Instead, the drone and feedbacks of “Absence” are the listeners’ internal atmosphere – they deconstruct ambient music and allow listeners entry into unchartered, meditative space.

“Don’t Bring Me Round” follows a similar path of deconstruction, this time with psychedelic trance music, which in other hands makes people feel groovy. But on “Don’t Bring Me Round,” the guitars are disturbing and bury the groove and vocals in the mix, as if they’re asking, “Do you have the right to be happy when there are stronger emotions to feel and other areas of your inner world to explore?”

Internality. This is what Lawrie explores on the 15:21 “The Living Things.” In fact, the bass groove creates a drone that functions as a mantra, which inspires lyrics about memory (Lawrie sings, “I remember everything”). The song is an invitation for listeners and Lawrie himself to compose together a sonic version of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time – and, more importantly, to explore their existential experience.

Lawrie’s great accomplishment on Hidden Fields and on all his Telescopes’ records is to willingly enter the post-human and to undermine corporate control through using its technologies to create new emotional experiences for an ever-changing reality.