After more than 40 years and dozens of albums, pinning down the sound of a composer like JG Thirlwell seems to grow more difficult instead of easier. Those who have followed his career since the early 1980s may have thought they had the Foetus persona pegged until they heard Love in 2005. It maintained many of the Foetus signifiers, but represented a seismic shift from 2001’s Flow album, as well as the rest of the Foetus oeuvre.
Thirlwell’s releases under the Steroid Maximus umbrella explored the varying paths of sly, spooky, and just plain scary. This musical personality deviated further with 2002’s Ectopia, an album that seems to have provided the template for Thirlwell’s score for The Venture Bros. television show. That sonic palette has also changed considerably over the last few years, illuminating how electrifying music composed for a TV series can be on its own merits.
There have been many other Thirlwell personae over the years, roughly divided between those with vocals (Foetus, Clint Ruin) and those without (pretty much everything else). Still, nothing could have prepared this listener for Thirlwell’s latest release under a brand-new moniker: Xordox.
Sometimes there’s a moment in a musical composition in which a particular sound triggers an emotional response that can’t be explained accurately, but only felt. About one minute and 50 seconds into “Diamonds,” the first track on Neospection, an increasing sense of ennui gives way to an eruption of ecstasy, like that instant when the sheer terror of an anxiety attack ceases, and a sensation of great relief washes over one’s body. This dialectic continues throughout the entirety of the piece’s seven-and-a-half minute running time, an extraordinary accomplishment for a song with no lyrics to dictate emotion.
This is also when it becomes obvious that Neospection is something markedly different from other Thirlwell releases.
The feeling of wonder carries over into the rest of the album, albeit expressed in a variety of ways. “Antidote” possesses an unsettling aura even as it incorporates a faster, more bombastic rhythm, including the sounds of bells and chimes. While “Diamonds” calls forth the feeling of flying, “Antidote” feels more like running, sometimes with mechanical horrors encroaching upon one’s footsteps.
Before “Antidote” ends, the pulsating beat of “Corridor” begins, with nervous melodies traipsing between semi-orchestral flourishes. Three minutes in, there’s something akin to a bridge – the sound of the Phantom of the Opera attacking a church organ – another astonishing creative flourish. This fades out into utterly sinister sounds, like lasers blasting through sheet metal.
“Pink Eye” changes the tone yet again, suspenseful and cavernous, with brittle beeps giving way to static like crushed vinyl. Another driving melody appears – a propeller slicing into water – before transforming into a more atmospheric scenario, as planes fly overhead, breaking the sound barrier. The ending, in which the vibrating synthesizers seem to whisper through the hair on the back of one’s neck, is another unexpected turn.
Disorienting sounds introduce “Alto Velocidad,” which roughly translates to “high gear.” True to its name, the track is a locomotive one, with a high-pitched squealing motif soaring above the squabbling synthesizers that run throughout. This squabbling takes center stage about halfway through the track, only to dissolve into the background and return with a vengeance at the end.
“Deep Shelter” is the most muscular piece on the album, with a heavy thumping offset by shards of metallic melodies and flashes of harpsichord. Alarms and sirens permeate the dense atmosphere until everything but one simmering synth is left.
Although the majority of the album is instrumental, “Destination: Infinity” has some lyrics, essentially the title repeated with slight variations to eerie effect. It’s an almost ironic counterpart to the track’s menacing melody, one that becomes more complex and engaging as it progresses.
There could be no better title for the final tune on Neospection than “Asteroid Dust.” This nearly 15-minute epic summons forth images of an interstellar space station, complete with landings, takeoffs, machinery being repaired, and nods to Vangelis’ Blade Runner score. A haunting reverberation appears in the imaginary sky conjured in this world, seeming to encompass everything like some mysterious, malevolent, intelligent life form. The ending, in which a teletype machine transmits one final, ominous message, is a fitting coda to the album as a whole.
Thirlwell says that besides various Moog and Korg synths, he also incorporated soft synths in Logic and Buchla and Serge modular synths on Neospection. He notes that he’s “never used synth string sounds before” but that it was “refreshing” to make a “purely electronic album. “I liked imposing certain limitations, e.g., no drum kits, most of the rhythms driven by arpeggiation.” (1) Sarah Lipstate of Noveller also provides guitar work on “Corridor,” “Also Velocidad,” and “Deep Shelter.”
Rather than confining the tracks on the album to a restricted sonic palette, such “limitations” have quite the opposite affect: an apparently infinite universe of sound. Neospection proves that even though decades have passed since Thirlwell’s first release in 1982, he still has many new and remarkable delights to offer us.
Neospection was released through Editions Mego on 14 July 2017.
Email to author, 28 August 2017.