Published Sep 11, 2017Popular culture in 2017 certainly affords us no shortage of sci-fi, dystopian visions of the future, but most are explored in visual not musical media. Complex ideas require exposition and explication — approaches decidedly at odds with what most expect from music.
This is perhaps why Sponsored Content, Canadian electronic artist Antwood's latest, is described in its press material as a thematic companion piece to high-profile shows like Black Mirror and Westworld. Exploring the problematic overlap between art and advertisement, (complicated further by themes of augmented humanity and digital consciousness), it's a project arguably better suited to an HBO pitch, but Antwood (Vancouverite Tristan Douglas) pulls it off with aplomb, engaging with these difficult ideas in some unexpectedly poignant, and even amusing ways.
Douglas explains that the project had been largely inspired by the questionable practices of certain ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) content providers on YouTube who had begun weaving ads into their videos — content that is ostensibly meant to sooth and put the mind at ease.
"[It seemed like] an opportunist-type endeavour," Douglas tells Exclaim!, "like justifying actually putting ads in original content. You're kind of in a transient, very vulnerable state [when listening to ASMR], not the kind of time that you want advertising aimed at you." This breach of the unspoken bond between artist and consumer (as well as its potential effects) is returned to throughout the album.
Interestingly, when he's not busy exploring ethical quandaries such as these in his music, Douglas pursues an academic career in Earth and ocean sciences, with a background in microbiology. Is there any overlap between a generally microcosmic point of view and the granular, billion-bit digital textures of Sponsored Content? Is the album built on a scale that would come naturally to someone used to seeing the world at a molecular level?
"The scientific aspect of my life and the musical aspect are really not connected in any tangible way," Douglas says. The album's otherwise synthetic textures do breathe with a surprisingly organic rhythm at times, however. There's a surreal verisimilitude to the digital waters at play in "FIJI Water" for instance, a sort of aural equivalent of the uncanny valley. This notion seems even more applicable after seeing the video for another track, "Don't Go," an impossibly slick digital short by Parisian media company Unicorn, featuring an androgynous, android-type protagonist moving in a pristine, underground subway environment, ads shining on the tiled walls.
"I'm really proud of this video," Douglas explains. "It's by this team in Paris [Unicorn] whose work I just instantly fell in love with. I did a lot of the direction and character design, but would rather kind of just give them all the credit for it, because they did an amazing job." It was a relationship of mutual respect, as Unicorn's artistic director Paulin Rogues had previously made videos for tracks from Douglas's last album (2016's Virtuous.scr), without even being asked. "He did a video for a bunch of my tracks from my last album, without me even requesting it," Douglas says, "[and] it ended up being really good, and I thought: I could potentially work with this guy."
The results are striking, and bizarre at times. At one point the protagonist kneels down in some kind of existential duress, only to become a magnet for… fish, forming the center of a bizarre vortex of silvery scales and flapping tails. Could this be the sought-after link between Douglas's academic interests in ocean sciences and his more artistic side? Alas, no: "[That's] one of the things that wasn't my idea," he remarks, laughing. "Very French."
Sponsored Content is Douglas's second album for Planet Mu, the esteemed British label headed by Mike Paradinas (aka μ-Ziq), who, along with Aphex Twin and others, helped forge the British IDM aesthetic during the '90s, work that paved the way for artists like Antwood. When asked about his influences, and Warp Records in particular, Douglas is effusive. "I've always looked up to this label, really looked up to Mike Paradinas, and Aphex Twin to a certain extent, as well as certain people that are coming out on Warp [now]."
Not mentioned but seemingly relevant is another quintessentially British duo — the Future Sound of London, whose seminal '90s albums Lifeforms and Dead Cities seem like earlier incarnations of the styles and themes Douglas mines on Sponsored Content. Older listeners familiar with these artists will easily fit Douglas's work into this kind of timeline, but, like a good TV series, one needn't get caught up beforehand in order to enjoy Douglas's latest.
Sponsored Content is out now on Planet Mu.