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Fire-Toolz’s New Album Finds Beauty and Chaos in the Old Internet

The Chicago producer and songwriter channels a life online, a history in Midwest emo, and a love for complex, heavy sounds into a computer music masterpiece.

by Colin Joyce
Aug 22 2018, 7:43pm

Photo by Matt Mateiescu

If there’s any lesson that the last couple decades of music born on the internet have taught us, the most pressing is that borders between genres are mostly bullshit. The distinctions between traditional folk musics and drum and bass seem self-evident, but decades of dodgy mislabeled torrents, and experimentally minded pranksters have—intentionally or otherwise—eroded the boundaries between forms and scenes. At this point, that’s more or less the default mode of existing online. You like everything. You know everything. You chew it all up and spit it out and make your own thing from the mush.

Angel Marcloid—a Chicago-based producer and songwriter who records as Fire-Toolz, among a nigh uncountable list of other monikers—has built a chaotic discography over the last couple of years, with this open-minded approach as part of the driving energy behind her work. This week, she’s set to release Skinless X-1 on Hausu Mountain (her second full-length for the Chicago purveyors of discombobulation and discontent), a 13-track collection of strange sounds from across the galaxy of underground music—from speed-demon techno to dewy laptop ambient, icy jazz samples, the colorful clicks and pings of online messenger services, mathy nu-nu-metal riffing, and well, just about anything else, swirled together in a loopy collage. It’s an extension of the works she’s been making under this moniker since 2015, which is universally digitalist, delirious, and otherworldly, but it feels tighter and more composed, the furthest step on a journey away from her upbringing in the Midwest punk scene.

Marcloid has recounted elsewhere the trials and travails of her years touring and playing in emo and pop-punk ensembles—which included, at one point, an audition for Avril Lavigne’s touring band. But over email, she explains that the next steps toward the strange and beautiful genre-obliteration of her Fire-Toolz tracks started with a bit of practical experimentation. She started messing with guitar pedals. At first it was delay pedals, which pushed her to embrace more space in her playing, then modulation, then loop pedals, then all of a sudden, she realized everything had changed.

“You start to realize that the results of experimentation aren't just self-indulgent fuckery,” she says. ”You begin to understand you're capable of building music, not just writing it. The last of my emo bands were so drowned in processing that I don't even think you could hear anyone actually plucking a string at any point.”

Though to my ears Fire-Toolz involves a fair amount of stylistic hopscotch, Marcloid says it’s not necessarily envisioned that way. ”The perceived chaos of the genre soup is not so intentional,” she says. “I don't think to myself ‘well I've only dabbled in seven genres in this song, I have to add another before I'm done here.’ I simply just compose the music I like and am capable of making."

But what that means, as Skinless X-1 demonstrates, can be a pretty wild thing indeed. Each track follows a strange, jumpy logic, fractured and fragmented in the way your memories of your dreams might be. “✓ iNTERBEiNG,” to give just one example, moves from night-drive guitar arpeggios into unpredictable glitchy ambience, befitting some of the slower Autechre tracks, before rocketing back off into a giddy synth riff and spidery riffing that kinda feels like Joe Satriani surfing over a nightcore remix of an Envy track.

In all the sounds Marcloid generally favors, there’s a sense of heightened emotion, or otherworldliness. There’s an inherent escapism at the heart of it—or at least a yearning for such—which makes the music’s jitteriness all the more effective. Jumping between skrams-y catharsis, techno bliss, and dead-eyed drones, there’s this sense of restlessly looking for peace in all the usual places, but mostly being unable to really find it. You cycle through the options, hoping that this one sticks—maybe acupuncture will finally calm your uneasy mind—but knowing that each new escape is ultimately just a distraction from having to deal with the real shit.

Skinless X-1 digs deep on a couple sounds specifically—the heightened emotion of heavy music and the dissociative digitalism of dance music—both of which Marcloid has long ties to. I ask her about the recent fervor around the 20th anniversary of KoRn’ Follow the Leader, since I hear a little bit of their high drama take on heaviness in her music. That record, she says, “fucking sucked.”

“No one will ever be able to write a record that tops Life Is Peachy,” she continues, before explaining that the metal that informs Fire-Toolz is possibly even less favorably looked upon in the eyes of music critic types.”The metal influence is drawn less from nu-metal and more from technical and progressive bands. Favorites growing up were Fear Factory, Dream Theater, Fates Warning... nothing too obscure I guess. I've always enjoyed the fantasy-like elements of those bands. There is so much more to metal than brutality and technicality.”

Photo by Manda Boling

The digital side also draws on that embrace of fantasy, demonstrated in the moments of pure bliss like “In the Computer Room @ Dusk,” a slow piece of overlapping synth vocals, glassy guitar tones, and puttering percussion. It harkens back to a specific image from Marcloid’s past, and it’s transportive, in the same way the more weighty stuff might be. A brief window to another world.

“When I started working on that song, I began to recall the endless afternoons I would spend in the little office at the front of our house messing with HTML or in some IRC chatroom,” she says. “The sun would just pour through the blinds and I remember how nice it felt warming up my skin while the air from the AC blew on my skin at the same time. I loved relaxing with a coffee, the cats nearby, the sounds of a lawnmower or frogs filtered by the walls of the house, a Dream Theater CD playing/skipping on the boom box behind me, nowhere to go, nothing to do.”

But the interesting thing about “In the Computer Room,” in contrast with much of Skinless X-1 and much of Marcloid’s other work, is that it allows you to luxuriate in that piece. No detours, no changing the channel, just peace for a moment. Marcloid said that’s part of the ongoing journey of Fire-Toolz, embracing those moments more and more. “I've sought to cultivate more calmness, solitude, serenity, and peace in my life over the years,” she says. “I imagine that within the next 5 [years, Fire-Toolz] will be full-on meditation music. Either that or I'll have a full jazz band behind me and we'll be pumping out easy listening libraries for day spas.”

Fire-Toolz Skinless X-1 is out August 24 on Hausu Mountain, but you can pre-order it now at the label's site or stream it in full up above.

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