Nicky Mao knows her way around a modular synthesizer, but she isn’t a techno person. She doesn’t really come from an electronic music background, either. A San Francisco native who also spent significant chunks of time in Hong Kong, Mao came of age in the Bay Area punk and DIY scene, but it wasn’t until she moved to New York in 2001 that she fully engaged with electronic music. Even then, it wasn’t dance music that caught Mao’s ear; instead she gravitated toward the dissonant sonics of groups like Gang Gang Dance and Black Dice.
Nearly 20 years later, Mao still likes aural discord, but now she’s the one manipulating the machines. As Hiro Kone, she’s spent the bulk of this decade honing her craft, repeatedly delivering passionate, politically charged bursts of crunching electronics while gradually moving from rudimentary synth and drum-machine experiments into the arcane realm of modular synthesis. (That particular affinity is something Mao picked up in part from frequent collaborator and former Coil member Drew McDowall; the two teamed up on a 2018 EP called The Ghost of Georges Bataille.)
Mao’s latest album, A Fossil Begins to Bray, continues that evolution, yet it also feels like the start of something new. Mao has upped her production game to a point where it no longer sounds like she’s experimenting. The music here is determined, confident, and occasionally downright threatening. Mao has never been shy about her politics—a casual browse through her Twitter feed might turn up thoughts on the BDS movement, Black Lives Matter, wealth inequality, American militarism, police brutality, or a number of other hot-button progressive topics—but A Fossil Begins to Bray feels like the first time that her rage and her dread have been fully harnessed in her music. The LP is the best thing she’s done.
A Fossil Begins to Bray has been billed as a rumination on absence, and more specifically its power in the face of what Mao describes as a “time of looming and unrelenting techno-fascism.” Faced with a world that’s full of noise, much of it downright terrifying, many artists have chosen to embrace chaos or indulge in full-blown escapism. Mao, however, has gone in a different direction, stripping her work down to the studs and leaving only a sturdy, focused framework that packs a hell of a wallop.
That wallop hits especially hard on “Fabrication of Silence,” a track that pairs sternum-rattling bass drops with ominously looming synth oscillations and razor-sharp sound design. “Feed My Ancestors” is another hard-hitting tune, its booming kicks veering into techno territory as slithering static and moody pads add a palpable sense of fear and apprehension. There’s a subtle ferocity to these tracks, yet Mao never lets the music run wild. A Fossil Begins to Bray may be menacing, but the album’s composure never falters.
Much of this can be credited to Mao’s extreme attention to detail. The droning “Iahklu” is a wonderfully grim exercise in controlled chaos; the unintelligible vocal snippets are a particularly unnerving touch. The album’s most technically accomplished offering is probably “Submerged Dragon,” which lives up to its imposing title. Creeping sheets of static and distortion stand in for the creature’s sinister breathing, which intermittently erupts into ferocious blasts of terrifying, Lightning Bolt-esque noise. In the hands of a novice, it would be easy for a track like this to fall flat, but Mao has clearly gotten to a point where her electronics have become a natural extension of her artistic vision.
At times, that vision becomes more cinematic. The brooding “A Fossil Begins to Bray” feels like the soundtrack to the surveillance state, its lurching synths, wispy waves of static, and mournful, vaguely North African strings steadily sweeping back and forth across the song’s churning underbelly. “Akoluthic Phase” takes a similarly widescreen approach, spiraling skyward in a flurry of thundering rhythms and dark synth crescendos. The magic of this album may be in its details, but A Fossil Begins to Bray certainly isn’t afraid of going big.
Mao’s alias is an Iroquois phrase that roughly translates to “I have spoken.” It’s a fitting moniker for an artist as outspoken as she is, but on A Fossil Begins to Bray, her music finally matches the intensity of her message. Mao’s success here stems from her ability to block out excess noise, focus on what’s important, and leave the rest on the cutting-room floor. Absence may have been her inspiration, but A Fossil Begins to Bray is all about essence.
Buy: Rough Trade
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