Lee Gamble’s Models is a cold, sad, wispy album whose songs are like ghosts trying to communicate their unfinished business, unable to puncture the barrier between their plane of existence and ours. The seven tracks on the UK producer’s new album don’t just deconstruct pop music; they obliterate it, leaving unmoored vocal bits gasping and choking in dead air, as if separated from their parent songs and starving for oxygen. There’s something curiously touching about these twitching, disembodied songs; you almost want to pick them up and try to put them back together again.
There’s not a single actual human voice to be found across the record’s 32-minute runtime. Instead, Gamble assembled an arsenal of synthetic voices, which he then fed through neural networks that scrambled the syllables beyond recognition. At times, the results resemble human language, as when “She’s Not” repeats its title over and over like an overzealous trained parrot. Others are pure generative gibberish. Once you realize which pop song Gamble is atomizing on “XIth c. Spray”—hint: it’s an early hit by an American pop star whose last name rhymes with “spray”—the contrast between familiar melody and alien language becomes funny, poignant, and frightening. You almost feel sorry for the artificial voice as it performs the function it was created to perform, endlessly and unthinkingly, with no comprehension of how ridiculous it sounds.
Gamble’s production feels just as incorporeal as the voices. Composed of endlessly circling rave melodies and chord progressions that lead nowhere, it harkens back to the ambient jungle deconstructions on his 2012 album Diversions 1994-1996 and conjures the same feeling of cavernous emptiness. His productions may not be composed by AI, but they don’t exactly sound human either, with “Purple Orange” daringly disappearing into silence in its opening seconds. (Many listeners may find themselves checking their volume settings.) Even unmistakable nods to Hyperdub labelmate Burial on “Juice” and Boards of Canada on “Blurring” feel less like references and more like errant bits of cultural detritus that Gamble just happened to scoop up while digging, WALL-E-like, through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The album’s one moment of stunning beauty—a wash of Ashra-like guitars at the beginning of “She's Not”—seems totally divorced from the rest of the music here, which proceeds from such inhuman logic that the idea of “beauty” seems as foreign to it as it would be to a crocodile.
Yet there’s something reassuring about Gamble caressing AI for its flaws. The existential concern around AI stems largely from its potential to displace work and money from actual creatives; to a lesser extent, the technology raises questions about expressive authenticity: How much of an artist’s soul comes through in music generated by an intelligence beyond the artist’s control? Gamble deals with this problem by using AI in a deliberately inhuman, even ridiculous, way and calibrating his production to match it. He has compared the voices to Elizabeth Fraser, whose unintelligibility has become a meme, but even at her most inscrutable, you could usually suss out what the Cocteau Twins singer was feeling. With the strange quasi-intelligence that stares back out of this music, it’s anyone’s guess.
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