In a world where political leaders are realizing that they can govern on outright lies and even the words used to impugn such behavior have quickly been adopted to further their mission of disarray, the only response that makes sense is confusion. You can do your best to untangle the wide webs of fake news and garbled conspiracy, but immersed in a constant flow of absurd information, it can become hard to tell which way is up.
No music mirrors this feeling of constant bewilderment as well as hardvapour—a brutalist, high energy response to the lackadaisical nostalgia of vaporwave. The genre emerged over the past couple of years as a thumb in the eye of the complacency and relaxation implied by its parent genre's narcotine bliss. Proponents adopted the serrated edges and unpredictable programming of electronic music's more aggro genres—like gabber, industrial, and IDM—as an ear-bleeding mirror of the state of the world.
At the forefront of the genre is the absurdly prolific collective and label H.V.R.F. (short for Hardvapour Resistance Front). According to their Bandcamp, they're based in Pryp'Yat', Ukraine, a ghost town near the border the country shares with Belarus. It seems unlikely, however, that anyone associated with the collective is actually based there, given that the city was evacuated after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. But in such misdirection lies the appeal of the loosely defined group, which has been responsible for upwards of 80 releases of shuddering, dystopian beats since they first formed May of last year. It's hard to tell exactly what's real, except for the fear and anxiety in their music.
Every 20 releases, the collective issues an installment of a series they've called World War 2020. The series is a politically minded collection of pieces that to date has dealt with themes as wide-ranging as the global influence of Russia, the rise of ISIS, and most recently Wikileaks (they also issued a compilation called This Is the Zodiac Speaking…"I Am Not Ted Cruz" that was not officially a part of this series). Over blistered beats, producers—ranging from pseudonymous producers with sketchy monikers like TRUMP2016 to more recognized underground figures like NMESH—employ surrealist samples of sacred chants in Arabic, stump speeches, or absurdist dialogue from the 2016 campaign trail, twisting them into dadaist collages as disordered as the world itself. It's unclear when you listen to something like their most recent compilation WORLD WAR 2020 - EPISODE FOUR (2016 VERSION): WIKILEAKS VS. DNC (released on January 5), if the forces behind the music believe in anything except for chaos.
To attempt to understand the music and message of H.V.R.F., I traded emails with the official email account of the label and collective—though they wouldn't tell me exactly who was speaking for the group. Their responses—insomuch as they were occasionally combative and contradictory—raise as many questions as answers, but in a world like this one, how could it really be any other way? Below is an edited and condensed transcript of those emails.
THUMP: The idea of "resistance" is in the very name of your collective, when you first formed, was there some idea that you would be a political force?
H.V.R.F. Central Command: Being based in the Ukraine (albeit in an uninhabited zone) during wartime, it made sense to adopt a militant stance. Although a couple of the early releases hint at battlefield engagements and wargame strategies, it wasn't until release #20 when an artist came to us with the whole "World War 2020" concept. The fact that he subtitled it "Episode One" lent itself from the beginning to be an ongoing series. Every 20th release is a new episode of World War 2020, but overall most of our releases do not have a political context. Does this make us a political force? Maybe for these specific times, it does if compared to all of the labels that have zero politics. It should also be noted how prescient the initial WW2020 release was being that it came out in May 2016 yet predicted a Trump presidency and a Russian focal point.
Do you take any joy in the degree to which you've prefigured the state of things? Does it make you feel weird that the world is now reflecting the darkest timeline that your work suggests?
We weren't really gloating regarding being a predictor—artists in the vanguard are typically precognitive to a certain degree. As for this reflecting the "darkest timeline" we would have to disagree. First off, we don't really know the future, but it seemed like the globalist agenda of the US political machine was marching us straight towards World War 3. Full speed ahead.
We were engaged in conflicts for every single day of Obama's presidency and these battles took place in eleven different nations in all. Obama's reign was hardly a time of "peace." Government surveillance of citizens reached an all-time high as well. [Ed. note: This claim is hard to quantify directly, but even private companies who hold our online data acknowledge that US government requests for information have increased in recent years.] So perhaps the "darkest timeline" would have been a Hillary Clinton presidency. Maybe Trump's victory will actually reign in some of these global conflicts. Only time will tell. But before you start affiliating H.V.R.F. with the "alt-right" or any nonsense like that it needs to be stated that many of our artists (including myself) were fervent Bernie Sanders supporters and the DNC leaks only served to illustrate how corrupt and manipulative the HRC machine had become. None of this is straightforward in the slightest.
Why make a compilation themed around Wikileaks? How does that connect to the overall mission of H.V.R.F., insomuch as there is one?
Release #80 was coming up, which meant maths required another episode of "World War 2020" [to] fill that slot. It was right after the US election and of course Wikileaks was one of the biggest storylines of 2016. This seemed like an amazing launchpad for track ideas because Wikileaks and the election overall had taken so many bizarre and unexpected directions and the emails (whether hacked or deleted) were a constant talking point.
Even before Pizzagate unspooled there were those emails between Podesta and the Blink-182 guy about UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence along with the "spirit cooking" threads that suggested occult rituals were the DNC's "party activity" of choice. So yeah the Wikileaks theme was timely more than anything—as was the Ted Cruz/RNC compilation before it. There's no "overall mission" for H.V.R.F. per se—we're just a platform for sounds/concepts/ideas that are based both in reality and fantasy.
Between this compilation and the Ted Cruz-themed compilation last year, there's a sense of humor—or maybe surrealism—at the heart of your overtly political gestures. Do you look at the state of the world and feel like you have to laugh?
It would be an honor to be considered part of the surrealist/dada lineage of course, but there's also a fair amount of hyper-realism going down as well. For the Ted Cruz compilation we did get some mileage out of inverting the Ted Cruz = Zodiac Killer meme, and at the core many of us were paying tribute to 80's era pop songs that used political soundbytes like Bonzo Goes To Hollywood's "5 Minutes". But you are perceptive as to H.V.R.F. having a sense of comedy towards all of this—where others see horror, we are poking sticks around to find the pockets of laughing gas—much like the Surrealists did during wartime.
This brings up another parallel because in Europe the artist class was heavily displaced during WWII and several Hardvapour artists have also been displaced because of the wars in Ukraine and are now operating from new posts. So this isn't all an absurdist/abstract take on world events—as these wars carry a grave impact on civilian populations and people have to flee their homelands for safety. This brings us back full-circle to Wikileaks exposing the machinations and horrors of these wars.
Do you feel a responsibility to make your actual political views known? I feel I can read them in the concepts on your releases, but it's a bit ambiguous. Is there a goal for this stuff, aside from commentary?
Our views are entirely ambiguous and there is no consensus. The paradoxes are myriad and that's what makes it interesting. While we certainly can't speak for all of our artists we can say that many of our artists liked both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the recent election. So right there, we are "oxymoronic" by nature. We have noticed that the youngest artists are part of what we call the "Wikileaks Generation" and they have a healthy distrust of the mainstream media (propaganda?) machine, but it's not like any of us are going out and protesting on the streets for some "cause."
So there's no explicit message to be found and even if there was one, to state it as an absolute in a written interview would be stripping the "art" of interpretation out of the equation. Let's take the Wikileaks compilation as an example—there's 33 tracks in all on the compilation—this means that there are 33 differing and relatively ambiguous artistic takes (or "commentaries") on the subject of Wikileaks. Isn't that a hell of a lot more interesting than someone trying to ram a narrow and specific political agenda down the public's throats? The "goal" was to make an engaging album on the subject of Wikileaks—mission accomplished.
Are you feeling optimistic about a Trump presidency? What would you say to those who—reasonably I think—worry that he threatens the lives and livelihoods of marginalized people both here and abroad?
We have to be optimistic and hope that some "Power of Positive Thinking" holds true. As for your "marginalized people" comment, we can say that there were some "marginalized" (Hispanics, LGBTQ, etc.) artists on H.V.R.F. who felt that Trump was a less scary option than HRC and that some of those feelings were generated by what Wikileaks revealed. Does this mean that we are a bunch of "Trumpers"? Absolutely not. As we stated before, had it been Bernie Sanders vs. Trump it's likely that many of us would have been "Feeling The Bern."
One of the artists on the Wikileaks comp works for the Green Party. Another artist on the Wikileaks comp is non-political, but was fascinated in exploring the Alex Jones/Infowars angle for this. There were definitely some HRC supporters on the Wikileaks comp as well. There were no instructions given to any of the artists aside from "make something that fits the theme of Wikileaks and the 2016 election"—but it's fitting that feelings of absurdity and terror were reflected in many of the tracks as the 2016 election was truly stranger than fiction.
You release a lot of really heavy electronic music, stuff that's influenced by or directly indebted to gabber and hardstyle and industrial. Other than the links to the political contexts in which much of that music was originally constructed, what does it mean to pair music like that with some sort of "political" message?
Well H.V.R.F. has had 80+ releases so far and maybe eight of those have some kind of explicit or hinted-at "political" message. Probably 20-30 of our releases so far have sci-fi or cyberpunk themes. Really we're just an open platform for artists to put their ideas and concepts across. There were no instructions relayed to artists for the Wikileaks album—if 20 pro-HRC tracks had been submitted then that's what we would have released.
One more important point to get across is this: with the likelihood of nuclear weapons being deployed against civilian populations when and if there is another world war then groups like Wikileaks are an extremely vital public service. Our leaders are literally toying with our lives with their wargames and we desperately need organizations that can help keep those who hold power "in check". Survival is not a "left" or "right" concept.
You specifically mention not wanting to be affiliated with the "alt-right," how do you see what you do as related to or distinct from another offshoot of the internet underground music that people have been calling "fashwave"?
Re: the "alt-right," we highly doubt that many members of the true alt-right are very enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders. As for "fashwave" that's a relatively new genre term and out of curiosity we did check out CyberNazi's music and found it to be well composed and skillfully produced. It reminded us of Com Truise with some Wagnerian flourishes.
His music is instrumental so technically there is no hate speech being conveyed beyond the visual aesthetic so it is very interesting that he has been banned from Bandcamp and YouTube while some explicitly hate-speech filled nazi punk and metal have not been censored from those platforms. But musically there is little to no overlap and hardvapour and fashwave are coming from such different perspectives ideologically that we don't see much relation at all. For those people who accuse the H.V.R.F. logo of looking "Nazi," it should be stated that the design was sourced from the logo of a Chinese construction company and is far more similar to NATO's logo than to anything related to fascism.
Is there a line—on either side of the political spectrum—for what you consider to be a perspective valid to represent?
Thus far we've never had to deal with any submissions that we felt were "too sketchy" but there has been an instance when an artist decided against submitting a finished album on their own accord. It was the original version of the World War 2020: Episode 3 "ISIS" and the artist was concerned that his usage of a specific Muslim prayer song could possibly be seen as disrespectful or blasphemous. So then we contacted a different artist who was already experimenting with sound collages on top of distorted Islamic beats and they quickly made an album for that slot to replace the canceled version.
Why use your platform to provide a voice to everyone? I'm sure you have friends and collaborators on each side who doubt that approach, why is that important to H.V.R.F.?
"Everyone" would be an exaggeration obviously, but if someone submits an album that they strongly feel belongs in our catalog then we're not going to question their motives unless it seems (or sounds) like an act of sabotage to us. We see H.V.R.F. as the musical counterpart to an accelerated particle collider—throwing these disparate styles, sounds, and viewpoints onto a fast-forward collision course with each other. Who knows what new creations/formations/mutations may result?
Also your framing of this question is interesting—you say "each side" as if there are only two sides—but in reality it is infinite and there are no "sides" or drawn lines. It's just a bunch of artists thinking for themselves and reacting to both the world and the works of their peers. This lack of "taking sides" is exactly why a number of artists that we work with loved Bernie Sanders and then when he was eliminated they cheered for Donald Trump to win this year's Super Bowl. It's not an issue of Right/Left or Democrat/Republican—and those antiquated dichotomies were turned upside down and inside out over this last year anyways.