There’s a line on Lee Gamble’s Exhaust that really gets under the skin. It pops up on “Naja,” named for a genus of venomous snakes better known as cobras. Against a backdrop of spa-time sounds, an emotionally blank but texturally fried voice says, “You can breathe, forgive yourself, and move on.” It calls to mind online privacy notifications, issued in accordance with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, that assume the expectant stance of a playground bully making the lunch-money rounds: “Accept and move on.” In other words: This is just the way things are now.
Exhaust can’t accept, won’t accept. The prevailing tenor of the UK artist’s new album is a deep-seated frustration with the paralyzing effect of late capitalism. It’s something that Gamble snarkily signposts with digitally voiced statements throughout the record’s eight tracks. They include “Look around, look around/We sell perfumes and cosmetics for £1…” on opener “CREAM,” and “I am so excited to help you pick out your next luxury vehicle,” delivered in an ASMR-like whisper at the beginning of “Shards” before the track breaks out into machine-gun snares and the satisfyingly gruff tongue twisters of a ragga MC. “Glue” employs a similar play, setting up a somewhat placid scene—the chatter of what sounds like an outdoor market offset by birdsong—only to raze it with a synth as subtle as a pneumatic drill. Abrasive drums and an alienated rave vocal sample complete the track’s disquieting portrait of metropolitan life.
In the release notes, Gamble references “the semioblitz,” a term coined by the late critic and cultural theorist Mark Fisher. A portmanteau of “semiotics” and “blitz,” Fisher used it in a blog post to describe the “capitalist semiotic pollution” that swirled around the London 2012 Olympic Games. The primary function of the semioblitz, explained Fisher, “is to make it seem that capital’s involvement is a precondition for culture as such.” Gamble—who is exploring the impact of the semioblitz across three releases, of which Exhaust is the second—extends its meaning to reflect “the aggressive onslaught of visual and sonic stimuli of contemporary cities and virtual spaces.”
It’s not hard to draw comparisons with James Ferraro’s 2011 album Far Side Virtual, which addressed a similar theme from a different angle. While Ferraro handled the sonics of our newly augmented reality with glee, Gamble uses the musical languages he has been steeped in for decades to critique the pace, temperament, and manipulative objectives of our interlocking online and offline existences. On “Envenom,” he erratically channel-hops through rave, techno, and breaks in a high-speed, contextless tour through dance-music history. In the last 30 seconds, a ringing bell, like the kind found on old-fashioned shop counters, serves as a subconscious reminder of how seamlessly corporations subsume subculture. The consumerist FOMO of “CREAM” (“these prices are only for today”) is not as effective as it could be, however; the vocals are too heavy-handed, and the intro’s siren and broken glass are overplayed tropes.
While there are moments on Exhaust that are pleasurable (the arcade-game grime of “Switches,” for example, or the unpredictable collage of “Saccades”), the album’s overwhelming sense of frustration often makes it a difficult listen. Of course, as Gamble alluded to in conversation with Simon Reynolds, that wasn’t without intention: “‘Brexit was happening, Trump was happening, and I was like, Am I now supposed to make an ambient record for everyone to just zone out?’ he says. ‘In these times, making music about escapism would be a cop out.’”
What I hear above all else when I listen to Exhaust is an exasperation with music as product. The emotion of the liberating anthems that Reynolds is nostalgic for has been co-opted time and time again. What’s more, as Liz Pelly has so incisively detailed in her reporting on both Spotify and Sofar Sounds, venture capitalists have played a big part in softening the edges of our experience of music, turning themselves into the stars in the process. If the most widely available music is also the most easily digestible, then it is no wonder that artists like Gamble are so keen to grapple with music’s purpose beyond entertainment—to be an art form in fierce dialogue with the present.
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