The One Thing I Can’t Seem to Shut Up About: A Commentary on Sol
I cannot possibly review Seeming’s new album Sol. It’s fucking amazing. It’s astonishing to me that Madness and Extinction is an album it’s possible to double down on and outdo. But Alex did it, with a second album that’s frightening, ambitious, and unlike anything else that’s been done, ever, by anyone. I care about it like I care about Kill the Moon and Promethea. Go buy it. Honestly, buy it, listen to it a few times. You can stream and buy it here. All Bandcamp’s profits today are going to the Transgender Law Center, so it’s a great day to splash out some cash for it. Then come back here.
I’m one of the people Alex regularly sends demos to, and so Sol has been the single biggest soundtrack of my last three years. Alex is one of my closest friends, but I’m also an unabashed and unreserved fan of his stuff, and I tended to play each new demo to death and beyond before just as eagerly devouring the next, listening in rapt wonder as song after song mutated from idea (sometimes even an obviously good one) through to demos that sketched its potential and finally to finished mixes, each one of which evolved and developed further in a frenzy of final tweaks and flourishes. Most notably, Sol was the secret soundtrack to Neoreaction a Basilisk, with multiple passages in the book being directly influenced by songs on it. Which we’ll talk about,
Beyond that, Sol as it exists for me is a tangle of songs well beyond the thirteen that actually made the album. I can’t even fully map the album’s creative influence on me without talking about songs like “Yes Artemis” and “Angel in the Jungle,” which you can at least check out on the Faceless EP, and others like “Party Anthem 2000” and “You Rang” that might show up somewhere some day, but might just as easily be things that wither away having been heard by a couple dozen people at most, ever.
So this isn’t a review. Instead it’s a commentary that is utterly rooted in my own idiosyncratic perspective. A “now the whole story can be told” documentation of the last few years of my life by way of one of the most titanic creative achievements I’ve ever seen, little yet had front row seats to. And, along the road, my own external sense of how the songs developed.
I’ve mentioned more than once that I “accidentally” wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk. This is a funny line that did its marketing purpose, but beneath the joke there’s a kind of grim-faced reality. Accidentally writing a book is more accurately described as compulsion and obsession. Whatever I may have wanted to be doing with my evenings, what happened instead was that I opened my laptop and continued to extend the strange and twisting block of text that insisted, again and again, that I come back to it. I too know what it’s like when only one thing is real.
The central question of Neoreaction a Basilisk, a thing I can only identify in hindsight, was “what do we do if we can’t possibly win?” (That’s part of why the finished version is taking so long, really. We very much didn’t win, and mustering up the energy to gaze into that abyss is a lot harder from inside of it than it was a year ago. The obsessive need to peer into it has been replaced by a near equal desire to pull away from it.) I don’t think that’s the same question Alex is asking with this album. But whatever question he is asking, we came to very much the same answers. That’s not a coincidence, of course; that’s just how friendship works. I began my book with “let us assume that we are fucked.” Alex began his album with this.
I fell in love with it pretty hard from the first demo, which I played to death for a good week or two. My main suggestion that I kept pushing for was to keep the sense of intimacy and a desire to connect with the listener. The album gets very weird very quickly, and Alex takes on a lot more characters than he did on Madness and Extinction. Those tracks where he isn’t wearing a mask tend to be sung to impossible things instead. This is the one track where the singer is Alex and the listener is you. This led to my repeatedly objecting whenever Alex tried to move it beyond a piano demo and Alex getting increasingly cross with me and eventually stopping sending me demos of the song. (His objection, which was absolutely correct, was that he didn’t want the album to start on a note that sounded even remotely like piano rock.)
But it was also just a very hard song for Alex to find the right approach to – one that had to accomplish both the intimacy I first fell in love with and a sense of ominous alienation while also selling the “gothic funk” pitch of the album. The intimacy was ultimately accomplished via the strings and brass, which gave a sense of warmth and humanity that remained true to the album’s musical direction. And, more importantly, by a late revision Alex made in which he ripped out a huge swath of what he’d added to the song to make it more stripped and minimalist.
Favorite part: The second verse, which, as comes up on the podcast, came out of the fact that everyone he sent the demo to loved the filler lyric he’d initially written for a second verse in which he berated himself for writing the same song over and over again.
If I Were You
One of the earliest songs to be created for the album – Alex first described this song to me a bit in what must have been March or April of 2014, right after Madness and Extinction – I remember him describing it as a “demonic Cab Calloway” song that had originated in a dream where it was given to him by John Balance of Coil. For a long time it was the album opener – note that the first line, “if I were you I’d crawl out from the shelter,” picks up more or less precisely where “Welcome to the Sun” leaves off on Madness and Extinction – but eventually it got moved to the second position, where it more directly responds to “Doomsayer,” providing the help and advice offered by that song’s end.
There are songs on the album that have transformed wildly from their earliest demos, to the point where listening to their initial forms is strange and funny. This is not one of those songs. From the earliest version I have, it was a snapping, snarling thing. I mentioned that this album sees Alex taking on a lot of masks. This one, however, has always been a mask for me to slip on – a three minute exercise in being the demonic raconteur who offers these jeweled poisons of advice. Comparisons with Hannibal are of course inevitable, not least for “if I were you I’d start the transformation.” But the similarity is more basic: this is a song about becoming the most terrible iteration of your best self. You should do absolutely everything it says. Nothing bad will happen.
Favorite part: “And shimmering in spotlights I would die for, I would kill for the unwavering attention of the gods.” I know this is a terrible idea. Nothing good comes of the unwavering attention of the gods. But it’s true. I would. There are moments when there is nothing I want more.
One of the most nerve-wracking parts of watching Alex’s creative process as a fan is that he writes way, way more songs than he actually has room for on albums. What this means in practice is that it’s basically certain some song you fall utterly in love with is going to fail to make the album. I spent basically the entire time from when I first heard “Zookeeper” to when the track list was finalized imploring Alex not to let that happen with this song.
What entranced me about the song was the double vocal line, and the sense of unsettling wrongness in each part of it. In the top melody, some apocalyptic event has reduced the zoo to a lone animal and its keeper. The lone animal, unsurprisingly, does not entirely understand this circumstance. The idea of not being a captive – of not having a keeper – simply does not compute. This is sad, upsetting, and strangely danceable. “Sad, upsetting, and strangely danceable” is basically this album’s tagline, of course. But still – the frenzied delivery of “there’s nobody left” may be Alex’s finest vocal performance.
The backing line, on the other hand, is an unhinged thing of splendor and terror. It’s an obvious thing to point out, but there are a lot of words in this part of the song. More to the point, those words drift in and out of intelligibility based on whether or not the top melody or the soaring disco strings are going on. The result is that the line wanders off for a while, sinking beneath the mix for a while to reemerge in a different (and generally somewhat more distressing) place. The effect is captivating and haunting. There are lots of days where this is my favorite song on the album, but it’s not actually one I can point to much influence from. It’s a song I enjoy getting lost in; I come to it, as opposed to it coming to me.
The point where the song seemed to clinch its album place was when Alex added the horse beat, which was inspired by the red knight in The Fisher King. The first version Alex uploaded to Soundcloud with that beat was tagged “horsecore.” Truly a genre with legs.
Favorite part: “Is the emergence of a tumor just a god who tries to break into our world by the shortest path,” a line I remember Alex reading to me in a coffee shop but managed to forget long enough to be floored by the first time I heard it in a demo. (Listening to old demos, I think the line was always there, but got uncovered when a bit of the top melody moved.)
When gearing up for my interview/debate with Vox Day, I had a “pump up” playlist to listen to with, unsurprisingly, several Seeming songs: “The Burial,” “Holy Fire,” “Worldburners Unite,” and an early version of this. This constituted a slight misuse of the song on my part – it is, after all, about self-banishment, as opposed to the conceptual annihilation of some external fascist dickbag. But the second verse, with its chillingly calm commencement of apocalyptic ritual, captured my mood going into that more than anything else. Music to fight gods to is hard to come by. This did nicely.
The song’s been around since the Madness and Extinction days – Alex played it on the first tour with a backing video consisting of a melange of mysterious symbols that included both actual occult sigils and things like the Triforce and the Prydonian Seal. That version was much more straightforwardly doom-laden, and felt like a fine outtake from the album, and I spent the better part of a year annoying Alex by arguing that it would feel like a throwback on Sol and should be dropped. Eventually he tore it down and created the hauntingly psychedelic version that made it on the album, then proceeded to hone it into a mad epic with a bunch of brilliant guest musician spots. I’m not actually sure what “space rock” sounds like as a genre, but I assume I’d find it terribly disappointing after the blasting chord following “will the mountains fall to space.”
Favorite part: The flute, where Alex’s instructions to the musician were something like “play as though you are the last person alive on Earth playing a battle with the dawn.”
Queer accelerationist manifesto for the win.
Obviously a big one to me; I pretty much knew the first time I heard the chorus that it was going to become the new Eruditorum Presscast theme, and it’s somewhat hard to imagine it ever getting unseated just because it so perfectly exemplifies my basic ethos. (I mean, I rise up in rage too.) During the writing of Neoreaction a Basilisk this became my private ward against Nick Land and everything he represented. There are a handful of philosophical positions that can always win, albeit at the cost of the intellectual equivalent of a narrative collapse. This was mine; my private trump card to wield whenever I got too deep. A solution that was always available, and always worked.
Its original version was called “Evolve Faster,” where it had a completely different tune, an earlier and looser draft of the verses, and used the bridge as its chorus. It was one of the gaggle of fifty demos and it didn’t quite distinguish itself, having a problem that’s not uncommon for Alex’s songs, which is that it was too clever for its own good. When it unexpectedly came back as a sultry slow jam I was entranced and then, when the “Evolve Faster” chorus came in as the bridge, thrilled by the reinvention. (I missed that the verses were the same, which I think is mostly a testament to how good Alex’s revision of them was.) The song made another massive jump in quality when Sammus’s vocal got added, and its status as the lead single was pretty much never in doubt from there.
Favorite part: Sammus’s delivery of “yeah,” which I fell in love with the first time I heard it; a perfectly cool, understated ad-lib that seems to me the perfect attitude to take towards evolving antlers with wings on top.
Being one of the people Alex sends demos to means that occasionally you open Soundcloud links that consist of things like a droning ambient loop built around the repeated line “I have read the terms and conditions. I accept the terms and conditions.” When this happens you make a polite comment about it being a neat idea and assume that Alex will forget about it having gotten whatever momentary impulse created that out of his system. Occasionally, months later this completely unpromising loop will reemerge as the chorus of a storming funk number and you’ll go “oh, well, I guess that’s why you’re the creative fucking genius here and I’m just the guy who listens to demos and makes unhelpful comments.”
This was the last song written for the album; my earliest file is from two days before the Neoreaction a Basilisk Kickstarter ended, so it really didn’t have any influence on that. After November, though, it enjoyed a definite period as a defiant anthem in my life – a far bleaker version of “Stranger” that acknowledged the whole “pitchforks at my door” problem with continual strangeness. Still, let the record show: I agree to my position.
Favorite part: The solo, which sounds like a demented snake charmer, presumably summoning the daemonic choir over the outro, which had been my favorite part until the solo got added.
The last song added to the album, although it existed in a bunch of demos that never really made anyone go “ooh, that’s good” except for Jill, who actually always liked this one. Listening to them now, they all sound like they’re on appalling amounts of quaaludes. Alex consistently carried a torch for it, however. I’ve said before that I think one of Alex’s great strengths is his instinct to hold back from doing the most obvious thing with a song, leavening his big pop moments with decisions that are stranger and more offputting. In this case, however, the correct solution was to do the obvious thing and make the song actually sound feral.
The obvious finally occurred to Alex in the fall after he and I went and saw a fucking fantastic Saul Williams show that was the big set piece of Ithaca’s annual free concert series. I left the show with a clear sense that I wanted to write a book about cyberpunk. Alex, meanwhile, left convinced that Sol needed a song that went fast and hard, and so resurrected “Feral.” The “next time let’s get raised by wolves” transition was based on a line he’d come up with while very nicely being the person who didn’t order the wine pairings at my birthday dinner.
Favorite part: The bridge, which Alex shifted downtempo as the rest of the song sped up to give it the needed sense of contrast. While catsitting for him a few months ago I happened upon the sheet where he worked out the melody for it and was suitably impressed by the complexity.
Within the fifty demo set, “Phantom Limb” was pretty much the consensus “well that’s going on the album” pick. For me it’s indelibly associated with a trip up to Massachusetts to be supportive as a friend went through surgery. I offered both the demo of this and my illicit screener of The Zygon Inversion as fun recovery room fodder. This was, I think, the bigger hit.
There is, fittingly, an unused song called “Shadow Bloodline” that also opens with a line about chimerical twins. The reason “Phantom Limb” slew “Shadow Bloodline” in the womb comes down, I think, to its soaring sense of yearning – a compulsively danceable love song about a ghost. That and the fact that the phrase “phantom limb” conjures another one of Alex’s mild obsessions, namely amputation.
Favorite part: The chorus, especially the long version of it at the end, which is for me the album’s big sing along moment. “I can see it (well almost) like a camera sees a ghost” is pretty much perfect lyric writing.
The Forgetting Room
This is one of the two songs with the most obvious and straightforward Neoreaction a Basilisk parallels – the section fairly late in the book where I talk about Alzheimer’s patients attending fake weddings by way of building an analogy about white culture as a ruin was pretty much 100% inspired by this song and the collapsed but still fundamentally beautiful world it conjured. I think the first description Alex ever gave me of what he wanted to do with the second album was “a bunch of love songs to ghosts and people who may have never existed.” “Phantom Limb” is probably the most obvious expression of that theme, but “Forgetting Room” strikes me as the deepest. One where not only is the object of affection defined by its unknowability and distance, but so is the the singer, and indeed everything.
It was the first song from Sol I had a demo of. Alex played it for me before Madness and Extinction was even out, and a second time shortly thereafter, at which point it got stuck in my head for a month despite the only lyric I knew being “and here in this forgetting room the rising sun’s the setting moon.” This was very annoying, so I begged him for a demo. (Also, Jill was in love with the idea of a song that Alex described as “about the universe getting Alzheimer’s.) I played it a lot around when my grandmother died, which means it’s probably the only song on the album I’ve actually cried to.
Favorite part: Shit, I don’t even know. I guess “the stars are old and can’t remember what it’s like to map the seas,” but more than anything else on the album this song feels like a singular and monolithic thing of austere splendor. I don’t think it’s going to be the song that jumps out on anyone’s first listen to the album, but its depths are unlike anything else.
I Love You Citizen
I was slightly surprised when I realized this was going to make the album, as it’s “clever” in exactly the way Alex usually decides to exile to an EP. The reason is straightforward and hard to argue with, which is that everybody fucking loves this song. Alex killed with it during the Worldburners tour (“I Love You Citizen went over really well,” I told him after the show I saw. His reply: “Oh good. I didn’t notice, because I was too busy becoming a robot.”), and it’s notable that it was basically born fully formed. Putting on the earliest piano demo of it, it feels surprisingly like the finished product. (It still went through four more demos.)
I suspect part of the appeal is that it scratches the same itch that “Still Alive” did, complete with very similar vocoder effects, but has more going on than just a joke. It didn’t particularly inspire much on my part, but was always a song that felt like it had obvious resonances with the Eliezer Yudkowsky stuff in Neoreaction a Basilisk. But in terms of the album, as Alex points out in the podcast, putting it after “The Forgetting Room” moves it from a generic computer-run dystopia to something far stranger – an unexpected recurrence of the concept of love in a context far beyond anything human. At one point Alex cited Don Hertzfeldt’s Simpsons couch gag as the tone he was going for with it, and that’s stuck with me hard since.
Favorite part: The word “citizen.” Alex knew he had something the moment he thought of juxtaposing that word with a love song, and he was straightforwardly right.
A couple of years ago I wrote a random manifesto for “the golden age of adolescent literature” that took this phrase not to describe the current condition but to be a self-description that had to be lived up to. Absolutely nobody cared except for Alex, who eagerly glommed on to my idealization of adolescent disaffection and overconfidence. “The Wildwood” comes out of this ideological tendency on Alex’s part – a song of teenage hubris come back to haunt you on an album where haunting, enlightenment, and ego-death are never particularly well differentiated concepts. “All the ghosts you felt so certain of” is straightforwardly one of the best lines on the album, clear and mysterious at the same time.
This one has obvious resonances with Neoreaction a Basilisk, particularly the end, although I’ll mostly discuss that with the next track, which was the more direct link. Mostly this one lurks more personally in my consciousness. I associate it with long nighttime walks on unfamiliar streets, and the sense of pushing into a new and unknown space. An awful lot of psychedelia and overtly mystical art leaves me cold, not managing to speak to the mystical and the magical as I know it. This does. It looms and envelops, a growing sense of happening as experience starts to peel away from reality like a misapplied sticker.
Favorite part: The sitar-like guitar lick that comes in at the two minute mark and the background wail of “I’m still asleep, I’m still asleep” compete pretty hard for the honor, but the truth is that it’s probably “all the ghosts you felt so certain of.”
At the Road’s End
I almost asked Alex permission to use lyrics from this as an epigraph in Neoreaction a Basilisk. I don’t regret not doing so, but all the same, this song is basically the book in musical form. The entire first section applies. “At the road’s end is just the open indifferent barbarian sprawl. It’s no fable. It’s no closure. It’s no circle. But it’s not over.” Indeed. But the key moment is the driving, repeated “straight on into wilderness, forward into darkness.” The end of the book, starting roughly from when I declare that we’ll take one last run at the labyrinth, and intensifying massively at “It’s just a ghost story – a strange play of the light late in the long anthropocene night” is basically that line, over and over again, with growing frenzy. Let us assume that we are fucked? Fine. Plow into it. Find out what’s next.
This song was an absolute beast for Alex to assemble, which isn’t exactly a surprise. At one point, Alex and I had the delightful exchange, “I’m not 100% sure I want to tell people that the ultimate truth beyond life and death is Prog Rock.” “That is the only thing prog rock has ever been good for, Alex.” I think that was the same conversation in which I suggested that the way to end the song and something that was conspicuously absent from the album was a virtuoso solo. He chewed on this a bit and then went and got Merzbow in, which was not at all what I was thinking and also brilliant.
Favorite part: The way the second segment seamlessly goes from Alex growling “straight on into wilderness, forward into darkness” over spooky drums and synths into a preposterously slick groove with unironic “sha na na nas” in the background.
Talk About Bones
And so the album ends in what is unexpectedly the only way it could: a song about faking your own death and running away from everything. This wasn’t actually the album closer at first – it was originally part of a big poppy jag in the middle that stormed through “Stranger,” it, “City of the Faceless,” and “Yes Artemis” before transitioning to the “Phantom Limb” through “At the Road’s End” segment to close out on on. But eventually Alex realized that saving the crazy anthemic pop song with the title drop for the end of the album made more sense, and, well, here we are.
This was a fairly late addition to the album – I remember a lot of the work on it came during and right after one of the pre-move trips to Ithaca we made, and so it’s another one that post-dates Neoreaction a Basilisk. It was an odd one to watch come together – there’s a lost first verse about a fish rescue gone wrong that got dumped in favor of starting with what was originally the second verse. But despite changing what the song was about midway (or at least, clarifying it from a “sequence of scenarios” song akin to “Beautiful For the Last Time” into a song that was clearly about one thing) it came together quickly and decisively. The best anecdote I can think of from it is when Alex added the slight thunder effect on “run run run on through the rain.” He described it, with mild defensiveness, as “a little over the top” or something similar (“cheesy,” perhaps), to which I responded by pointing out that the chorus of the song is “what sets your soul on fire” and that ship had probably already sailed. He conceded the point.
Favorite part: The transition off of the Merzbow solo, as two minutes of self-annihilating noise suddenly resolves into a catchy main riff with shattering glass as a drumbeat.
August 4, 2017 @ 10:28 am
I’ve only managed to listen to all of SOL once and it deserves much more (there are a couple of songs on Madness & Extinction that I appreciated only after listening to the album a few times).
So far, my highlights (some of which I’ve listened to earlier, in whole or in part, thanks to the various snippets) include:
Stranger – ever since hearing that chorus on Eruditorum Presscast. That’s a powerful anthem and right now my Facebook avatar is just KEEP GETTING STRANGER.
Knowledge – this is right up there with The Burial and possibly better than Worldburners Unite (maybe because that funky influence makes it sound intriguing and like nothing I’ve listened to before). “So I want complain when my shattering is dreamt by the 99%” is just an unbelievably strong piece of lyrics that I want to shout-sing along to as I walk down the street.
Phantom Limb – English is my second language, so I don’t always immediately register the lyrics. This is one of those Seeming songs that at some point make me go: “Wait… what?” in the best way. I love the ’80s vibe.
I Love You Citizen – it seems like a simple enough idea, but it’s probably one of those that only seems simple once somebody comes up with them – so kudos to Alex for that. And the sudden change that starts with “I am reaching out to you and only you…” is just brilliant, appearing suddenly like a sudden shadow of a cloud and immediately changing the temperature.
Wildwood – that’s me, right there in the song. I love this one, it transports me instantly to my favourite numinous place from childhood that still sits at the centre of my personal mythos.
At the Road’s End – brilliant and dark, although the solo at the end is really not my thing.
Talk About Bones – one of the songs I’ve only heard this morning, while listening to the whole album, but it immediately drew my attention. It feels quite upbeat, like “Decorate Your Scars” did on Madness & Extinction. I like that the album ends on such a note.
August 4, 2017 @ 3:47 pm
For some inexplicable reason, I want a version of I Love You Citizen done like it’s being sung by the computer from Alphaville. Might be an idea that only works in theory, but it’s one I think would be worth testing.
Also shameless plug for my live tweet of listening to the album for the first time: http://deathchrist2000.tumblr.com/tagged/SOL/chrono
August 15, 2017 @ 12:26 pm
Although I think your largest contributions to my life remain (1) your own writings and (2) your guided introduction to the existence of the Doctor Who New and Eighth Doctor Adventure novels, Seeming are making it close. Madness & Extinction was my favorite album of 2014; “Party to Say Goodbye”, “Worldburners Unite”, and “Holy Fire” were three of my favorite songs of 2015; Sol has jumped into my 2017 album lead. And this time around, I’ve made a few conversions.
August 31, 2017 @ 4:51 am
Jesus fucking Christ, this album.