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January 25, 2002

++ The Sound Of Dark Days

++ Dark days, these. That phrase has been running through my mind with increasing regularity lately. Not just because of September 11 and its aftermath, although that was one of the early triggers: as a frequent critic of US foreign policy, I haven't been terribly heartened by the government's response to the terrorist attacks. I believe in bringing the terrorists to justice, and I believe in quashing Al Qaeda and its affiliates, but I'm suspicious of Bush's rhetorical conceit that you're either "with us" or you're "with the terrorists." That neat duality doesn't leave a lot of room for dissent, and we're beginning to see how well dissenters — or even perceived dissenters — are faring, at the hands not only of the government but also of the media.

Dark days: I'm afraid of further terrorist attacks, and I'm also afraid of a clampdown on civil rights at home. I'm leery of the nation's declaration of a war that promises to be as vast, and as ill-defined, as the Cold War. I'm disheartened by the fact that our ostensible victory in Afghanistan is being used to mask the fact that we may not have made much headway in the pursuit of the real culprits. (Indeed, just this week the New Yorker reports that the US government actually facilitated the evacuation of many Pakistani fighters for the Taliban. If there's any consolation in that, it's that the Bush administration is aware of the delicate geopolitics of South Asia and is mindful of the necessities of realpolitik. On the other hand, such concessions call the administration's hard-line rhetoric into question; where else are we willing to compromise, and to whose benefit?) I'm especially uncomfortable with the military buildup Bush has proposed, the largest since the Reagan era. Bush's tax cut has handed an astronomical sum back to corporations and to the wealthy, at the expense of the federal budget; now, as the rest of us tighten our belts, it seems like the ol' military-industrial complex is about to get a fat infusion of cash.

Trickle-down economists will be thrilled, but all I see are trickle-down double standards as the same imbalances play themselves out in miniature. Just last week, for instance, a Bay Area company with which I'm reasonably well acquainted announced layoffs and the prospect of further "right-sizing." (Don't even get me started on this kind of corporate doublespeak.) In the same all-hands meeting, not 10 minutes after making these ominous forecasts, they turned around and awarded one lucky director of sales a shiny new Rolex. Well, bully for him. Doubtless it will come in handy when he needs to be on time for his next job interview, right after the same company right-sizes him out of the picture.

++ OK, so I'm a little angry, I'll admit it. (You, dear reader, are only lucky that you're not in my friends' and family's shoes — they have to listen to me vent, day in day out, much less eloquently, and with considerably more cursing.) I'm pissed about a whole lot of things, most of them coming back to government policy and corporate greed — and it's astonishing how often those two go hand in hand. I've never been much of a free-marketer, but my anti-capitalist leanings have been pitching toward ever more extreme angles lately. And since I've basically led you by the rhetorical hand, by now there should be a giant, tilted E flashing in your mind, in brilliant red-green-and-blue neon. That's right, Enron — the most wonderfully horrible debacle American-style capitalism has seen in decades. In some ways, I'm pleased that Enron has collapsed so spectacularly — not only out of the schadenfreude of seeing corrupt executives finally get taken to task, but more pragmatically because it means that maybe, just maybe, this country has a shot at implementing long-needed reforms in campaign finance and corporate tax laws. I'm not putting much stock in it, pardon the pun, but it's a nice fantasy. In my lighter moments I fantasize about holding a national work stoppage until firms like Enron cough up the federal income taxes they've avoided paying over the years. (The New York Times has reported that Enron, thanks to a labyrinthine arrangement of offshore subsidiaries — including 692 in the Cayman Islands alone — paid no taxes on its profits in four of the last five years and in fact was eligible for $382 million in refunds.)

Enron was by no means the only culprit in this practice: the same article reports that a "small but growing percentage of large companies pay no income taxes, a study by Citizens for Tax Justice showed in October 2000. The study of half the Fortune 500 companies found that 24 owed no tax in 1998, up from 13 in 1997 and 16 in 1996." I'll do the math for you: that would mean that nearly 5% of the Fortune 500 companies — and I don't even want to speculate on the size of that combined market capitalization — owed no taxes in 1998. I can't wait until the data for 2001 become available.) In my really mirthful moments, I speculate on how I might set up some similar arrangement, perhaps dictating all my writing over the phone to some Cayman Islands-based intern, in order to avoid the taxes on my own little freelance industry. Do they even have interns in the Caymans?

++ Matthew Herbert sees dark days as well, and his new album under his Radio Boy alias addresses them head on — not simply by railing against them, punk-rock style, but by cutting the dark fabric of everyday life into an ominous strip that he weaves directly into his music. The Mechanics of Destruction critiques capitalism by subverting its very tools: every song on the album is constructed entirely from the sounds of the companies, institutions and individuals in question. "McDonalds," a shuddering techno warhorse marked by bursts of static, is made entirely from recordings sampled from a Big Mac meal. Herbert shreds the Styrofoam container, cardboard box, and wax-paper wrapping into a confrontational blast of noise that isn't afraid to be funky. "Rupert Murdoch" is made entirely from scratches, smacks and thumps performed upon a copy of The Sun, a newspaper owned by Murdoch's News Corp. "Since Rupert Murdoch pays very little tax in [the UK], his newspapers and TV stations become part state-owned since they are heavily subsidised," Herbert explains. "If we are to have a state media, I'd rather it wasn't one with a distinctly hypocritical social agenda and an array of sexist, trivial, violent programmes where intelligent debate should be."

This isn't the first time Herbert has taken on Murdoch, an aggressive media monopolist charged by some critics with curtailing press freedoms in order to secure lucrative contracts in China, among other dubious practices. On 2000's Indoor Fireworks, released under his Doctor Rockit alias, Herbert attacked Murdoch's "spineless broadsheets" in a grand choral piece ironically titled "Hymnformation."

But The Mechanics of Destruction is Herbert's most explicitly political work yet, largely because of the way he has entwined his subject matter — the unsavory practices of companies like McDonalds, Marlboro, and Exxon; the moral bankruptcy of Hollywood; and the allegations of Henry Kissinger's war crimes — with the music. Indeed, without the material at hand, there is no music. "I... derived great pleasure from consuming these omnipotent products in ways that they weren't designed for," says Herbert, and you can hear the pleasure in his giddy cuts, his starry-eyed syncopations.

It's "a journey of rubbish," he explains in the liner notes, "turning shit into music, the temporary into permanence, and the identical into the unique. Whether you actually like the music or not, is an entirely other matter... (and, I would note, perhaps besides the point)." Indeed, fans who turned on to the sultry intimacy of last year's Bodily Functions, marked by jazzy arrangements and fleshed out with Dani Siciliano's incomparable croon, may be put off by the unapologetic abrasiveness of this album, but as Herbert points out, your enjoyment of it might just be irrelevant. Despite its dance music cadences, this is not a piece of pop music: it's pure protest, and with nary a slogan to be heard, it's punk as fuck.

"Music is largely political in two principal ways," he explains in the liner notes, "either operating separately from the hegemony by offering either an escape or an alternative, or by offering a critique of it... Since music is the organisation of noise, the selection and structuring of that noise becomes a metaphor for the organisation of a society." He takes the idea seriously: "Nike," performed entirely with a pair of Nike sneakers and an Adidas box, "is a lament to Nike workers in Indonesia that are paid $37 a month (source: IMF)." As such, the track is 37 seconds long. More chillingly, consider "Rwanda," at 8.5 seconds long — "one second for every 100,000 people killed, a conservative estimate."

In keeping with his ideals, the album is to be distributed profit-free, at gigs and other events. Indeed, between its sonic abrasiveness and its political edge, the album wouldn't be likely to move many units through traditional retail. Even Herbert confides in an email that he "got a bit worried in retrospect about the liner notes as they are quite full-on." But the fact that he's riling up some of his most ardent fans doesn't deter him. "Means I know I got something right." Herbert's seen the dark days, and he knows there's no turning back. "It's time for electronic music to get off the electric fence," he says.


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