Last year, Perturbator — aka James Kent — released Terror 404, an album of delightfully retro synthesizer pop that sounded like the soundtrack to the best ’80s sci-fi/horror film you never saw… or the very best round of Cyberpunk 2020 that you played back in high school. The album had one of my favorite songs of 2012 (“Savage Streets”). But in my rush to compile my year-end list, though, I completely missed that Perturbator had released an entirely new album, titled I Am the Night.
Kent sums up his latest album thusly:
This is the story of someone who has nothing left to lose, wandering in the hostile neon-soaked dirty streets of a city from the future, armed and dangerous. This is your story.
No one really knows what kind of danger you will encounter during this journey into madness. You know you’re not alone, but you are ready. You are the night. Now, lights off.
Man, if that doesn’t sound like the set-up for an awesome campaign of Cyberpunk 2020 (does anybody still play this?), I don’t know what does.
I Am the Night begins with “The New Black” and at first, it’s tempting to think that Perturbator is merely rehashing his earlier sounds as the ominous textures of “Savage Streets” percolate under a sample of Peter Finch’s famous speech from Network. Yes, he hasn’t deviated too much from his fetishistic take on Moroder-esque italo and Vangelis-esque ambience. Songs like “Retrogenesis” and the title track are perfect examples of this, as the synthesizers paint a vivid sonic picture of those “hostile neon-soaked dirty streets” — and all of the seedy wheelings and nefarious dealings that occur there.
But while Kent’s unafraid of recycling ’80s synth soundtrack clichés and indulging in them to the hilt, he’s also willing to shake things up a bit, and his music becomes stronger for it. On “Eclipse”, he introduces less-kistchy and more leftfield ambient textures that play across his retro-future sounds like ghosts in the machine. And the album ends with “The Price of Failure”, a melancholy closing credits piece that sounds like M83’s cosmic soundscapes after a dose or two of Broadcast’s radiophonic wierdness.
More interestingly, though, he sends a couple of vocalists into the heart of the megalopolis — Memory Ghost’s Isabella Goloversic lends her lovely world-weary voice to “Naked Tongues” and Greta Link does the same to “Desire” — and the result is a welcome infusion of humanity into the cold cyber-soundscapes. Both vocalists lend the music an element of warmth that, for a moment, makes it transcend the retro-kitsch… and makes the retro-kitsch all the more enjoyable when it returns with a vengeance on songs like “Technoir” and “Raining Steel” (which features what I can only imagine/hope is a blazing keytar solo).
Much as been made of the “hauntology” movement in music, and its attempts to transcend mere kitsch and realize the future as it might’ve been imagined in the past. Perturbator’s I Am the Night is the dark side of what, say, the Ghost Box label represents. If Ghost Box represents the future that we might dream of thanks to half-remembered childhood books and television series, then Perturbator represents the nightmare that we cobble from half-remembered ’80s VHS cover art. That particular vision of the future might be a bit less idyllic and pastoral than, say, The Advisory Circle’s, but I wager it’s a helluva lot more exciting to visit.