While any music might be speculative fiction—an answer to the question, “What if the world sounded like this?”—experimental electronic music twined itself to science fiction from the start. The first movie to have a completely electronic score was 1956’s Forbidden Planet, blazing a trail leading through Wendy Carlos’ A Clockwork Orange and Mica Levi’s Uncanny-Valley-of-the-Dolls experiments for Under the Skin. Gavilán Rayna Russom has been exploring strange new worlds under her own name and various aliases for more than 20 years, but The Envoy is a particularly concise dispatch. Her early records, like 2003’s El Monte (made with Delia Gonzalez) and Black Meteoric Star’s 2009 self-titled debut, sprawled as they gradually unfurled tangled kosmische and techno webs in single takes. As Russom became an occasional member of LCD Soundsystem, her own releases grew rougher and tougher, sounding closer in spirit to the Long Island Electrical Systems label and New York’s travelling poly-everything Unter parties.
The Envoy explores different territory: Ursula K. LeGuin’s outrageously fascinating 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, in which an ambassador from an interstellar equivalent of the UN explores a frozen planet populated by otherwise agender beings who periodically flux anatomically between male and female, depending on who strikes their fancy. Then they fuck. “As someone whose experience of gender has been complex, layered, and has tended to exist completely outside all social norms and categories,” Russom explained in a statement announcing the album and her gender transition, “I felt I was being seen.”
She’s put that vision into practice, developing nine lovely tracks in tribute to LeGuin’s masterpiece. Opener “Changelings in the Human” arrives in a brief bloom of scratch and haze, a rocket settling into a puff of ice dust. Closer “Winter” gradually crystalizes into angles of echoing piano chords, gathering stillness around itself. Between them, the album discovers unctuous sinews of industrial dub in “Strength Out of the Dark” and “I Bleed I Weep I Sweat”; on headphones, these tracks might tickle the ear, but when played loud in a room, they storm. “Place Inside the Blizzard,” whose title references an interzone in the book that is populated by suicides and ice-bladed grass, casts an unshakable chill. It’s like ASMR for feeling lonely. Melancholic respites like the Budd-like beauty “Center of Time” and the eerie title track are the sonic equivalent of those moments reading LeGuin’s book when you simply must close your eyes and let the brain unspool.
Much like in The Left Hand of Darkness, though, the true revelations come via making contact. In Russom’s case, it’s with a pair of celebrated ancestors. “Discipline of Presence” is a tense set piece for a full brass ensemble courtesy of Peter Zummo, a collaborator of Arthur Russell (who himself knew a thing or two about queer new sound worlds), who Russom met while touring and recording Russell’s Instrumentals. Zummo’s brass heralds something unknowable but certain as it rises through Russom’s fog; it’s imperial yet sort of shapeless. But “Kemmer” is the album’s true heart. Named for the temporal-sexual moment when LeGuin’s beings transform, the track is graced by Cosey Fanni Tutti’s intonation of Russom’s provocative texts. Cosey is that rarest of creatures, an underappreciated icon. Finding her and Russom together in this world is a great comfort to ours, in which at least 331 trans and gender-diverse people were murdered around the world between last fall and September, as waters rise and land burns. We need these partnerships, these connective visions, so that we might see a future for ourselves.