Fantasy and sci-fi authors have always obsessed over war, both for its dynamism and its senselessness. “What is absurd and monstrous about war is that men who have no personal quarrel should be trained to murder one another in cold blood,” Aldous Huxley once said. The concept alone is a vehicle of such terror and turmoil that—save for those of us to sit at the frontlines—we can only understand it as something parallel to reality. As such, war has fueled Huxley’s dystopias and Jerry Bruckheimer films and the barbaric realms of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros. On his debut EP under the solo name, Liquid Soap, the musician John Barclay offers us his own war-laden fantasy—this one in techno form.
Like his predecessors, Barclay, who owns and operates Brooklyn nightclub, Bossa Nova Civic Club, draws from an interest in the fantastic. He’s influenced by things like The Old Testament, elves, dragons, and druids, but he also has an awareness of the real world—the ever-growing sense of doom in a Trumpian America. His story, Naja Warfare—out April 12 via 2MR—has elements of both.
Throughout the EP, Barclay weaves together the fictionalized narrative of the Naja, an ancient people politically betrayed by its neighbors. The Naja barely escape violent annihilation and then establish an alliance with an exiled civilization endowed with supernatural abilities. After a period of reconstruction, the Naja return to fight for their ancestral homeland.
“In other projects I’ve felt like I had to tone down the explicit supernatural themes and the over-the-top sound effects because I thought labels wouldn’t touch it or I was just too embarrassed to say ‘Please listen to my Elf Warfare music’ out loud,” Barclay told me, seated in Bossa’s back booth in a maroon hoodie and black pants, sipping a soda water.
I’d last spoken with Barclay in 2015 about his now defunct fantasy-techno collective, DUST—which, while not elf warfare per se, wasn’t really traditional techno, either. With vocalist Greem Jellyfish and audio engineer Michael Sherburn, Barclay blended screeching vocals, live hardware, and a punk ethos with in-your-face stage theatrics. Their only full-length, Agony Planet—also released on 2MR was riddled with allusions to alien encounters, even a psychedelic-induced abduction experience at Berghain. With Liquid Soap, though, Barclay has given his inner child full carte blanche. “I’ve always silenced this 10 year-old boy voice within me that wants to put a medieval harp or a sword battle over a beat,” he says. “And now I’m letting him speak.”
Diverging from the process that birthed DUST, Naja Warfare drops the hardware (though Sherburn still pitched in on some of the engineering), opting instead for the breadth of sounds available via software and sound libraries. Barclay wields harp and sword alongside kettle drums, metallic bells, magic spells, war speeches, and otherworldly wildlife, all seamlessly synthesized into an hour-long “Megamix” that will be released in tandem with the EP.
The Megamix is best experienced in full, but for practical purposes, Barclay separated the mix into eleven tracks. Today Noisey is premiering its lead single “Battle of Xengani,” which Barclay described in the press release as a “Najarian Dunkirk.” “It’s perhaps the most decisive point in Naja history,” he continued. “Where upon suffering a catastrophic decimation at the hands of their genocidal oppressors a small civilian population fights off a notably larger and more well-equipped army and ultimately escapes to the desert.”
Barclay mixes retro-sounding synthesizers with faraway cries and dueling swords over a punishing 4/4 beat, eventually resolving to throbbing glissandos that seem to mark the Najarian escape and foreshadow their eventual return. It’s the kind of David vs Goliath war story we all love—the stuff of revolution.
Barclay’s fascination with warfare stems from a childhood spent on military bases. His dad was a marine, and he grew up playing with toy machine guns and G.I. Joes. By infusing these themes into his music, Barclay maintains his own niche in the techno world. “It feels like a lot of people, at least in my scene, are making techno for pontificating in all black in Berlin, whereas I’m attempting to make techno for throwing a burning axe into a haunted castle or something,” he said. “When I’m making music and I close my eyes I’m not imagining signing a record deal or performing to a sold out club; I’m fantasizing about overthrowing an oppressive serpent empire or some equally absurd, egomaniacal circumstance.”
It’s the techno of revolution, one that bridges fantasy and reality. And revolution must be one reason we glorify war, because it’s a means of escaping oppression, whether from an actual serpent empire or its real-life equivalent. And as online avatars replace flesh and Soylent replaces food and avaricious snakes steal our basic liberties, there’s reason to wonder if there’s even a difference anymore.
Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. You can find him on Twitter.