Audio Obscura – Adventures In The Anthropocene

News stories about climate change are generally coupled with their own distinct imagery. We are now well used to seeing images of, variously, the terrifying silhouettes of forest fires, of cliff faces or ice shelves crumbling into the ocean, of factory chimneys billowing fumes into the atmosphere, of aerial shots of vast, sprawling megacities or images of mute animals acting as a short-hand for extinction. In this context, there is something both depressing and terrifying about the image that Neil Stringfellow selected for the sleeve image of his follow up to last year’s Audio Obscura album, Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene

Not for Stringfellow these stock images; instead he has chosen something somehow more relatable, more impactful, and more shameful than images that we have become, if not inured to, then certainly used to – a municipal dump, the vast industrialised means of disposing of mankind’s waste en masse, and a row of washing machines, ovens and televisions. The circumstance of their disposal is, of course, not clear, but it is a thought-provoking image nonetheless. Were they replaced because they didn’t fit the household’s aesthetic and changing tastes? Were they replaced because they were no longer working? Could they have been repaired? What will happen to these appliances next? Will they be dismantled, their parts stripped, salvaged and recycled into new appliances? (Unlikely.) Or will they be shipped on vast diesel-powered vessels to distant shores where they will become some other community’s problem? As I said: depressing and terrifying. 

Adventures In The Anthropocene is, itself, partly recycled. It includes remixes of tracks by Scanner, Belly Full Of Stars and Rupert Lally; it includes an alternative version of ‘The Clattering Train’ from Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene; it includes a thirty-minute live performance of the original album reworked into a single tapestry. The album also includes five new pieces, including the stunning opening track ‘Komorebi 木漏れ日’, named for the untranslatable Japanese expression for sunlight passing through leaves. 

The impact of Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene was perhaps most felt in its afterglow. Stringfellow’s message was both direct, but also subtle. It inspired you to think differently, but its bleak, detached tonality also offered little hope to cling on to. It arrived smack in the middle of the pandemic, where the world felt unexpectedly united, for once. There was a common enemy, a common problem, a need to collaborate across borders to tackle a common threat; a new President was shortly afterwards installed into the White House, and one of his first gestures was to reverse his predecessor’s dismissal of climate change and his conjoined, hateful nationalistic rhetoric. There was a sense of hope: what if this effort to mitigate a virus could be applied to climate change (something, lest we forget, that has the potential to cause many, many more deaths than COVID19)? Fast forward to the release of its (sort of) sequel and things feel like they’ve shifted. Rather than celebrating the speed and efficacy of cross-border vaccine development, it has instead become a geo-political warzone and the embodiment of vaccine-led colonialism (a new book by Peter Hotez, Preventing The Next Pandemic, adroitly deals with this subject). And spend any time in your local English shopping centre or high street the weekend after non-essential retail opened and you will see just how far we haven’t come, being the embodiment of greed and self-centred individualism, not the ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit that existed for a lot of 2020. 

Adventures In The Anthropocene’s release is, thus, timely. The central live piece, using extensive segments of narrated commentary about what humankind has wrought on this world – including creating the perfect conditions for global pandemics such as COVID-19 – is a useful wake-up call for anyone whose sole focus has been booking a flight to some far-flung destination or queuing for hours outside Primark just to buy some cheap, disposable, unsustainable fashion frippery. There is a significantly larger issue at hand; we may have survived the pandemic, but it is merely a symptom of the bigger war we’re in danger of forgetting about if we don’t act now. 

Scanner’s remix of ‘Goodbye Helocene’ at least sounds optimistic. For his mix, Robin Rimbaud has developed a sort of woozy, shimmering, journeying exotica from the bones of the original track, which has the effect of distracting you from its less-than-cheery subject starting point. In contrast, Further. favourite Rupert Lally takes ‘Radio Anthropocene’ off in an appropriately darkened, brooding direction, its plaintive piano and droning backdrop sounding like the final broadcast of a damaged transmitter before the end of the world, while Belly Full Of Stars re-imagine ‘Love Is…’ as a modern classical duet for swirling saxophone and mournful cello set to clipped, inchoate beats. 

The album ends with one of Stringfellow’s new pieces, ‘The Last Full Day Of Civilisation’. There is a fragility here, and a sense of pretty, stirring wistfulness. Its delicate, overlapping, chiming music box melodies might sound celebratory, but only in the sense that music played at a funeral is celebratory. To this listener, it wordlessly says, ‘Here lived homo sapiens, who consciously squandered the gift they were given, and in so doing made themselves extinct.’ If that doesn’t make you sit up and take action, then really nothing will, and we’re all doomed to the fate foretold in Stringfellow’s ruminative closing arguments. 

Adventures In The Anthropocene by Audio Obscura was released March 4 2021. 

Words: Mat Smith 

(c) 2021 Further. 

Audio Obscura – Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene

One of the earliest things I remember of the COVID-19 pandemic was how quiet the skies became. We live on a corridor that runs out of Heathrow, less than fifty miles south of us, and the unmistakeable drone of jet engines or the graceful plumes of parallel contrails, slowly dissipating behind an airliner, were part of the sonic and visual focal points of our skies. 

I find myself returning to this recollection again when listening to ‘Three Sisters’ from Neil Stringfellow’s new Audio Obscura album. In ‘Three Sisters’, Francisco Cantú reads a story about his own lockdown experiences. He too notices the quietened skies and the sudden drop of air traffic by up to 95% as he contemplates the failure of the crops he tries to grow during lockdown. Where his forebears might have known instinctively how to work the land, Cantú watches as each of his crops – each one an ancient species common to North America – fails. It seems to underline, in a detached, almost resigned way, how little we understand of so much of that which sustains us. 

Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene’s focus is squarely placed upon the proven reality that humankind has created the singularly destructive destiny we are now living through; whereas, at other points in Earth’s history, nature has wrecked devastation on our planet, setting in motion massive evolutionary changes and sculpting the way our home looks, the Anthropocene is entirely manmade. Even pandemics like COVID-19 are singled out in the words written by Stringfellow’s chosen experts, pre-eminent authorities on the Anthropocene like Professors Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, as symptoms of what we have wrought. 

For Stringfellow, the motivation to produce this album came from parenthood. Like a lot of us, the introduction of children into your life gives you pause to think and reflect about the world that they will inherit. In Stringfellow’s case, this set in motion a three-year process of developing the album, seeking permission to use texts, gathering samples of the likes of Greta Thunberg and choosing narrators and collaborators. Its release on the eve of Halloween is appropriate, for this is likely the most unsettling, chilling thing you will experience this weekend. 

Presented with an unflinching gaze upon the state of the world, how this came to be, and the tipping point we find ourselves at – or more than likely already beyond – Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene is a contemplative sequence of fifteen pieces. Skipping electronics, eerie birdsong, delicate strings are Stringfellow’s chosen backdrop for narrations by Cantú, Anders Harboe, Julia Blackburn, Simon Medley and others. Each piece is draped in either mournful texture or a sense of violence – fractured sounds, broken rhythms, cycles of abrasive dissonance. The effect, on pieces like ‘Welcome To The Anthropocene’ or the plaintive ‘Magpies’ is arresting; at times an aggressive tonality seems to shake you violently out of your complacency, quickening your pulse and giving genuine shivers. 

It is the messages that are important here. Stringfellow’s role is thus that of the curator, creating the conditions for these messages to reach your ears, often in the most brutal and direct of ways. The album was concluded in lockdown, and we hear snippets of BBC broadcasts from the summer, when lockdown panic seemed to be receding and the forgotten – or, as is the actual case, linked – virus was further down the headlines; where the focus on ecological disaster once more became our focus. Wildfires ravaged vast tracts of land, another species lurched closer to extinction, and so depressingly on and on. Nothing had changed; we were just looking elsewhere, and that rather sums up our collective attitude to impending environmental doom. 

Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene borrow its title from the classic novel by Gabriel García Márquez. Like the way that Márquez’s book peeled back the layers of life story of its protagonists, Stringfellow’s album does something similar with the Anthropocene, explaining its origins and painting an anguished picture of its irreversibility. Unlike Márquez’s book, however, there is no dark humour at play here; no one falls out of a tree trying to rescue a parrot. In Stringfellow’s case, the character saws down the tree, murders the parrot and thus proceeds to take a blowtorch to an ancient rainforest. It presents a damning indictment of humankind’s legacy, and the worst of all possible gifts to our children. 

Love In The Time Of The Anthropocene by Audio Obscura was released October 30 2020. 

Words: Mat Smith 

(c) 2020 Further.