Nina Sun Eidshem begins her 2019 book The Race of Sound with a concept she calls “the acousmatic question.” When you hear a voice and you’re not sure of its source, your nervous system lights up, asking, Who is this? Who is speaking? Or, in the case of Amnesia Scanner and Freeka Tet: What the fuck is that?
Since their 2018 debut album, Another Life, the Berlin-based electronic duo Amnesia Scanner have coaxed uncanny vocalizations out of a suite of artificially intelligent software they call Oracle. Similarly to Holly Herndon’s AI chorus Spawn, Oracle sings both like and unlike a person: Its phonemes come out nasal, serrated, and tinny, too stiff and jagged to sound fully human, too warm to be completely machine. It cradles enough of its organic source material to catch the ear with a spark of recognition, but corrodes that human kernel until recognition sours into dread. Upon hearing it, the body softens and then flinches in a matter of milliseconds: There’s someone else here, but something’s all wrong.
On their latest release, STROBE.RIP, Amnesia Scanner team up with the New York-based multidisciplinary troll Freeka Tet, whose sardonic work similarly teases out the frayed seam where viscera meets machine. A video of a 2018 performance at MUTEK shows Freeka feeding his face into an algorithm that deadens his eyes and smears his mouth like a bugged-out PS2 avatar. Both Freeka and Amnesia Scanner delight in smashing misaligned elements together into grotesque new forms. In collaboration, they birth plenty of monstrosity, but also plunge deep into an eerily wistful current—a mood that has long coursed behind the flashbangs of Amnesia Scanner’s music. The questions both projects raise with their perceptual distortions—is that another person? Is it like me? Is it something else?—are fundamentally lonely ones. With STROBE.RIP, Freeka Tet and Amnesia Scanner embrace that frigid isolation in between their usual fits of delirium.
Oracle surfaces throughout the album in a mode that’s far more withdrawn and melancholic than the confrontationally playful stance it held on Amnesia Scanner’s past two albums. “I need to learn to say no/I don’t wanna go/I don’t wanna go,” it sings on the lurching, slimy “Giggle,” the vocals wispy and buried in the mix. Against the dusty piano loops of “Bounds,” Oracle takes on a deflated register, singing out from the bottom of a depressive pit: “I’m living it out of bounds/You can’t help me.” The album hits its peaks when Oracle and Freeka Tet’s vocals tangle together. On “Damon,” Freeka’s metallic screeches undergird Oracle’s creeping whine over nu-metal guitar chugs. The uneasy, polyrhythmic “Ledge” drags Freeka’s compressed glossolalia into the heart of the mix, while offsetting the intricate beats with a repeating triplet that splits the difference between voice and drum: percussive but not quite percussion, vocal but not exactly a voice.
Nothing here feels quite so lonely as the calm before the storm that closes out the record. “Clown,” whose treble leads pirouette over a bass throb indebted to Massive Attack’s paranoid “Man Next Door,” bleeds into the shadows of “Abandoned.Club,” whose big-band breakdown meshes Oracle’s unintelligible wails with gossamer guest vocals from Bea1991. The smoke clears for “Scorpions, Bats & Spiders,” a spoken-word confrontation by artist and Instagram phenom Jaakko Pallasvuo, who also wrote the micropoem on STROBE.RIP’s cover. With oblique barbs of language, Pallasvuo satirizes attempts, like the one I’m making now, to render the bodily experience of this kind of music into expository language. “Club abandoned/Deconstructed/A panel discussion,” goes the voiceover, pronounced with perfect classroom diction. Behind these words, Oracle lilts in a treble register, its voice swirling through syllables empty of syntax.
That cerebral mood melts inside the album’s inferno of a finale. The one-two punch of “Cat” and “Merge” satirize EDM’s most obvious elements and savor their blunt pleasure at the same time. The stomping, sneering “Cat” punctures its walls of sawtooth bass with New Jack Swing orchestra stabs and simulated moans from Oracle—the closest this particular AI has come to a sexual awakening. On “Merge,” Oracle’s bristling adolescent howls keep trying to crystallize into language, but never get there. They sputter and squall, rearing up over Freeka’s low growls, demanding all attention within earshot and then spurning it with gibberish.
If you type the name of this album into your web browser, press enter, and click past the demon, you’ll end up at the video for “Ride,” along with a slew of comical error messages that pop up whenever you click the background. Directed by Freeka Tet and Ruby Aldridge, the video offers a first-person view of a white-gloved DoorDasher rushing through New York, dropping off various goods wrapped in shiny black plastic. At the end of the clip, the courier parks their bike and goes home to their apartment. Everything inside—the couch, the modem, the logs in the fireplace—is mummified in the same plastic. Like a lot of good punchlines, its resonances are terrifying. The role you perform in public seeps into who you are in private; daily entanglement with platform capitalism changes you at the root. When Freeka Tet and Amnesia Scanner drop you into their whirlwind of unnerving questions—“What is that? Is it human?”—they prime you for one better: “Am I?”