There are elements of our current geopolitical situation that feel beyond the control of those of us here on the ground. Closed door dealings in corporate boardrooms, largely invisible societal structures, and top-level meetings between despotic government officials rule more of our life than we’d like to admit; the illusion of free will or whatever is irrevocably intertwined with whatever remains of The American Dream. It’s deflating, to say the very least, but it’s important to remember that you do still have some agency in the midst of that. There is a degree of choice of how consciously you participate in those systems, or a choice to recognize when you are complicit—when the actions you’re taking are more or less just harming yourself. Over email this week, Matia Simovich, one-third of the San Francisco band of synth explorers INHALT, offers a good metaphor for this feeling.
“It’s like being a smoker,” he says. “You know cigarettes have the ability to harm you in the long term but there is a short term urge to do it for the temporary sensation and grounding it brings, over and over and over again.”
INHALT’s new EP Commerce, out June 25 on Dark Entries, is concerned with this late capitalist trap—the idea that some small amount of the world’s heaviness is a result of our own compulsive participation. Another artist recently told me that we’re living on the cusp of an “age of bondage,” but per Simovich’s assessment’s we’re already living in it
“Many of the devices and goods we use today are built to be quiet addictive,” he says. “And to black-box the long term side effects not just from the production process (iPhones, laptops, factory farmed foods…) but the psychological changes that they create within ourselves (‘I want it for nothing and I want it now and I want more, on demand all of the time’).”
And so he, along with singer Philip Winiger and fellow multi-instrumentalist Steven Campodonico, put together Commerce, their third EP in an “anti-neoliberalism” trilogy that started back in 2013. Simovich says that the key to understanding the theoretical framework for this release starts with its cover, three overlapping fingerprints—scanned from each member of the band—an evocation of the intersection of consumption and identity, now that your biometric data can be used to buy groceries.
“This whole notion of identity as a consumable and commercial good communicated via the symbol of the fingerprint,” he says. “It’s a double meaning: you use your identity to consume (I.e. completing a point of sale on an iPhone with your thumbprint …) and then what you consume is identity. The notion that it is no longer a product that you are buying but a complex, deep, ideology; in essence buying meaning and belonging.”
It’s a suggestion, essentially, that we’ve let consumption has become inextricably tied with who we are, to the point that it’s turned inside out. We are essentially compelled to try to buy elements of our personality. That art too, insomuch as it intersects with capitalist processes, can be similarly transactional, that you can buy and sell taste. This, Simovich argues, risks sapping both radical politics and art concerned with such themes, of its power.
“This is particularly problematic when the lens of neo-liberal capitalism is cast upon the identities of groups fighting for socio-political change, disenfranchised communities, and underground, counter-cultural arts,” he says. “By their very transposition into the marketplace and the relentless reproduction of symbols associated with these identities, they no longer have the power or agency they once had. They become just another t-shirt with the face of Che Guevara or the Unknown Pleasures cover sitting in Neiman Marcus.”
It is heavy and heady stuff, which Simovich recognizes (“I come from a discursive tradition and the only solution to today’s problems I see is to enable discourse,” he remarks at one point.) But Commerce, and INHALT’s music writ large, isn’t meant to just be a repository for ideas and darkness. Sure, the heaviness haunts Winiger’s lyrics (sung in German), which concern themselves with the overwhelming nature of the world, faith, and the annihilation of desire in the face of the algorithms that shape public thought. And all that stuff is incredibly moving, but INHALT aren’t merely doomsayers. Their take on the jagged forms of 80s synth music—strobing EBM, brittle post-punk, ecstatic techno—is full of life and love, as if they’ve taken a look at the world’s tumult and decided that the only natural response is to just rage along with it. “The music of INHALT was always meant to be a kind of energy source,” Simovich says. “Firstly for ourselves and then for others that need it in the way we present it.”
One of the biggest jolts on Commerce comes in the form of “Alles,” premiering here today, which in its sleek sequencing and chaotic, evocative lyricism, is about the best summation of what makes INHALT great. Over four and a half minutes, dizzying synth passages spiral and swell providing a piston-like underpinning for Winiger’s insistent message, which culminates in the chorus’s embrace of the world’s overload: “Alles / Ist nicht genug” (“ Everything / Is not enough”).
“[‘Alles’] set the groundwork for the theme of the EP instantly as lyrically we wrote about self-exploration and confronting ones’ own ego,” Simovich says. “This, very quickly, lead to many conversations about identity both on the internal plane (who am I, what am I, what impulses am I addicted to) and the external (using identity to sell goods; identity as a commercial good; the sense of belonging as a purchasable item…)”
If you too are overwhelmed by the state of things, the way the good and the bad seem to blur together in this noxious swirl that feels totally out of your control, it’s well worth taking a listen to “Alles” up above in advance of the release of Commerce next week. It’s a reminder that other people feel the same way, and even if there’s no easy way out, there’s a way to keep pushing on, to the beat of a fragile drum machine and the pulse of a surreal synth line.
Colin Joyce is very overwhelmed on Twitter.