We are all the product of and refugees from an ageless struggle, which thus far has been one-sided. Though many battles have been fought, noble sacrifices made, and victories and concessions wrested from those who seek to reduce us to mere fleshy materiel to be exploited and discarded, we still find ourselves worn down and dehumanized, still hustling for meager material comforts, still denied the dignity and freedom we deserve, still existing in a fundamentally unjust and viciously stupid world in which the majority of humanity toils and suffers, still facing ecological annihilation.
It’s a lamentable, despicable state of affairs. There is no fault for retreating inwardly in the face of this, seeking out little personal joys wherever they might be found, desperately staving off that morass of abysmal sadness. We all do it all the time, and it’s often a very necessary means of self-preservation.
Yet even the act of gentle retreat is weaponized against us. Rather than the collective opiate of religious practice, we now must seek our all too temporary relief by reproducing our deep alienation and atomization: the enormous popularity of watching videos of people gaming, eating, or unboxing, they alone in their rooms and we alone in ours; the ubiquity of ‘platform Capitalism’, where our access to a fabricated sense of community is exchanged for unceasing surveillance, where we are quite literally a product that is ‘mined’ for data.
And much like the sermons of old, which offered vague promises of paradise in the life beyond but made very concrete demands of labor and obedience in this life, contemporary culture seeks to lightly sooth but firmly reinforce this power imbalance, to declare us as solely units of production and consumption. We have a preponderance of popular art with settings that are magical or fantastical, ‘purer’ worlds with straightforward explanations for and resolution of the violence and injustice that saturates our dull world – but which remain heavily feudalistic and lend legitimacy to aristocracy. There are others with occupational settings, where the coercion and threats inherent to employment are papered over with zany and wholesome antics, where management and ownership aren’t agents of exploitation but just quirky eccentrics who need to have some meaningful conversations with their underlings (who could learn a thing or two about listening and understanding themselves), where everyone implicitly endorses the idea that the needs of the company are above their own. We have popular music that presents buzzword laden “aspirational” messages devoid of meaningful content beyond the glorification of ostentatious consumption.
In this world there truly is no real escape. It’s the shallow, illusory happiness of the cessation of pain, the turgid gasping for air before our heads are thrust back down below the waves, the desperate hope in the moment when the boot rises from our faces that it won’t come stomping down again. Every aspect of life is geared toward our subjugation, in every possible manifestation. Thus we must all lean to and join in, to whatever extent or context our abilities or position will allow. No amount of solidarity and struggle is too slight, no field of battle too small or too intangible.
It is in this spirit that this document has been written and presented to you now. We call ourselves Guard Dog Records, a collective of independent musicians located across the United States. Our battleground in the broader struggle is musical practice. We seek not mere relief, but to create bulwarks for spiritual resistance, cathartic release, and ideological attack.
We issue this document to outline the effectiveness of sound and music in permeating mental barriers, the discoveries we have made through our experimentation, and to demonstrate some ways in which we’ve put them into practice. This is only one of many possible approaches, one which has suited our specific tastes, and which comes from a sincere and earnest place. For this reason we also choose to focus more on style, affect, mood, and vibe, which we believe are more malleable and easily reconfigured into other contexts.
While the scope of our abilities and influence is now limited, yet we still, and ever will, fight on.
An All Encompassing Ether
In the past, if we were to write a description of someone having a bizarre psychological experience in their study, we could describe numerous details to convey it’s fantastic and deep strangeness: we might have our protagonist put on a Bach record, describe the cavernous shadows at play in the dimly lit room, the cobalt and sooty sky seeping in through the window, the intermittent creaks of an old home straining against a frosty, brisk winter evening; our hero might be reading over some sort of fresh correspondence from someone thought dead, eliciting old memories long repressed, falling deeper into a miasma of nostalgia, long dormant thoughts erupting from their mind and affecting their perception of reality; now the creaking floorboards sound more like crying, the groaning joists and frames are more grunts and languid sighs, the wind now seeming to be tapping on the window pain, muffled shrieks and wailing barely kept at bay by a thin sheet of glass, the Bach gradually becoming dissonant and then entirely cacophonous, intrusive thoughts disrupting any sense of narration or normalcy, vignettes of wrongs committed against the letter writer bursting forth, a continual deterioration of the protagonist’s mind – until the wronged party seems to have appeared at the door, shrouded in a dense fog, casting a single accusatory finger forward.
Or, if we were more visually inclined, we could attempt to draw or paint the pivotal moment. We could depict warped and anguished faces in the wood paneling, make use of dark and brooding shades, unsettling hues, and convey just as much menace, confusion, and dread.
This was immeasurably effective in that slower, more ostensibly tangible world, poised on the edge of the ruptures and transformations that have begotten our more rapid, supposedly post-material one. Where was once the study or studio loft, there is now a paltry studio apartment; where once the pen, typewriter, or canvass, now a laptop, simple desk, cheap plastic microphone; where previously a fin-de-siecle born of angst from the death of the old feudal order in the face of a rapidly expanding industrialized capitalism, now, among the ruins of that capitalism, fear of a reversal into neo-feudalism, and barbarism beyond that. Ghosts no longer moan languidly from the past, but are spectral holograms screaming indecipherable warnings from a vaguely horrid future. We sit on the other side of a pile of wreckage and death, with an inclination and means of artistic expression that are uniquely intense and visceral because of it, no more so in our opinion than in the development of manipulating sound and music.
Were we now to make an audio essay of the above scenario, every single one of those elements would be present and active simultaneously and consistently throughout the piece. The Bach could be gradually manipulated in the ways described, the natural effects could be spliced with actual screaming, crying, or wailing, the intrusive thoughts could be running parallel to and quite literally interfering with and disrupting the narration. All this could be occurring without drawing attention to the change, creating a very subtle, organic effect, and this myriad of words and noises would all be actively taken in by the ears and mind of the listener, regardless of whatever one they were focusing on.
By use of the omnipresent nature of sound and hearing, we can ‘come in through the bathroom window’ of the mind, insert sounds, notes, words, and ideas, and use the function of the brain to foment mental atmospheres and create those deeply visceral experiences. We therefore view music as a pivotal weapon against the ubiquitous ideologies of contemporary life that plague us all.
Our music is steeped in this appreciation for it’s general power, and we make use of it in the following ways.
Reflection and Lamentation
Alienation, Atomization, and Anhedonia
As the captive, competitive subjects of neoliberal hegemony, we are fish swimming in lakes and oceans of intrinsic and all too tangible coercion. The rapid commodification of every aspect of life, social atomization, and the subversion of human need to market logic creates both an internal and external atmosphere of lingering dread, deep malaise, stagnation, general hopelessness, and thick clouds of melancholy.
A major aspect in our approach to our music is to foster sonic atmospheres that reflect that sickly, unseen mental haze which wafts throughout our lives. We don’t retreat from angst and sadness, but instead face it head on, meditate on it, intending a sense of global solidarity in the truthful recognition and exploration of these external injustices and the internal feelings they elicit. In effect, we seek to hold up a warped mirror, reversing those pernicious forces and throwing them back against the world by use of what we believe to be their musical equivalents: atonality, dissonance, non-musical elements, flat intonation, and non-linear lyrics, among many others.
We also make use of heteronyms, distinct artistic personas that embody the many artistic and spiritual inclinations and potentialities that exist in all our minds. On the one hand, this is a reflection of the need to take on many different versions of ourselves to navigate and survive a contradictory world, as well as neoliberalism’s obsession with endless output – but more importantly, we view this as being implicitly liberating (more on this aspect later).
This warped mirror is exemplified by the following pieces:
James is a master of setting these moods and creating these kinds of atmospheres. In this instance, he makes use of all of these elements, resulting in a somber meditation on his alienation from an increasingly less organic, human world, that process playing out on the margins and ultimately surrounding and overpowering his vocals.
“Noise” is a persona that almost exclusively operates with artificiality, here with incomprehensible mechanical mantras, clipped and warped fragments of melody, and miscellaneous noise repeating on and on, a reflection of the stasis and frustration in this age of the supposed death of history.
Darx is an artistic entity that exists in the mind of James Kelly, dwelling in the moldy, shrouded gullies of the subconscious. Here we have a demonstration of humanity stripped clean from life as lived, the various apparatuses of surveillance and discipline reducing us to flat and basic emotions, most prominent among them the desire to end this state of existence. Everything is sparse and austere, conveying a deep spiritual hunger never to be satiated.
VercinFeatherix is a musical persona of Jesse Marks. In this case, a sound essay that imagines a musical language of algorithms, devoid of any broader purpose or direction and thus often meandering off into nonsensical patterns, becoming less and less musical, more and more discordant and unsettling, mirroring the replacement of human sense with those of machines, a societal, mechanized lobotomy.
Instability, Unease, and Despondency
In our modern age we face endless cycles of peril, danger, and ruin. Every brief moment of relief and comfort is always underpinned by much larger existential dread. As such, alongside the desire to reflect the languid and distressing character of contemporary life are other attempts at fostering that sense of menace, instability, and especially the simultaneity of happiness and despair, one so often falling into the other:
Cage is the name for a group with constantly shifting but likeminded membership, who whip themselves into frenzies and jam for hours upon hours in full hedonism, until they reach a collective and unspoken understanding and common spiritual plateau. In this song, they sit in a contemplative but uneasy place, seemingly both in the aftermath of some catastrophe and immediately before another.
In this powerful and deeply unnerving piece, we have the juxtaposition of children at play with the barely perceptible but clearly menacing atmospheric effects beneath. The compact narrative of frogs who are briefly happy but ultimately sad adds to the overall effect of deep concern and despondency, children a promise for the future – but the future they will inherit full of toil, suffering, misery, and ultimately an inhabitable world
Another deep vibe from James. In this case we have a delicately fragile balance between beauty and ruin, vivre and fallowness, presence and confusion. The song wobbles to and fro, shifting from ghostly apparitions to rumination in the aftermath of great excess. In its rapid shifts in style and the intermittent use of harmony and effects, it mimics both the broader sense of a barely functioning world and the internal turmoil and inconsistency that broader instability creates.
Dr. Phosphorus is another persona that exists in the mind of Jesse Marks, one who also seeks to explore the recesses of the subconscious. Here he attempts to reproduce the mental interiority that results from the contradictory demands of our current age: constant self-doubt and self-deprecation, a sense of weight pressing down on the mind, vague but ominous dread hovering just beyond full comprehension, the disruption of normal processes like sleep or even clear cognition.
VercinFeatherix is often more direct in labeling and describing thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Such is the case here: a direct lamentation for the lost opportunity to stave off total disaster, at once a eulogy for humanity but also containing little pockets of joy – the blossoms of spring, its vibrant colors, the deep and enchanting azure of the sky, a brief nod toward hope for the future. Here we have thick harmonies that are steeped in dissonance, airy musical effects bound by gritty textures and an undulating and unceasing bass that is dissonant to everything around it.
Refraction and Confrontation
Outside Time, Terminal Optimism, and a Nostalgia for the Future
While we desire to make music that reflects the woeful circumstances of the world and daily life, we don’t intend to merely lather ourselves in misery and wallow in Doomerism. We see all too often a clear and perceptive recognition of the many problems of our world and advocacy for a better one – but all sadly undercut and undone by a deep resignation to impending catastrophe. The monolithic nature of injustice casts a long, deep shadow, which causes those stuck in its pall to doubt themselves and any notion of a new, different future. But the sparks from the broader struggle, born of the meager but meaningful victories our comrades have won here and there throughout history, can ignite in us a passion and desire for a future in which true dignity, true freedom, and true comfort will be all of ours to bask in together.
We therefore take a hyperstitial point of view: that it is necessary to think in terms of “it will have been” – it will have been a great struggle, it will have been a hard road to a better world, it will have been a fabulous rebirth. We don’t shy away from the utopianism implied in this, we relish it, and revel in the endless sense of possibility that mindset foments.
Thus our use of heteronyms: a representation of the potential for every idea and inclination to be given space to develop and grow, a continual cycle of mental and spiritual reconfiguration, reinvention, and rebirth that we hope to see flourish across the world.
We fully ascribe to being terminally optimistic – we feel we have no other choice than a slow, grinding, spiritual death. For us, terminal optimism is the recognition of the enormity of the struggle and the high potential for defeat, but it also adheres to that hyperstitial outlook, which compels us onward and forward, regardless of the daunting circumstances.
As such, we seek to balance our brooding, sorrowful output with music that evokes a sense of being outside of our current time, whether utopian or barbaric, hybridization and blending of genres wherever possible, a nostalgia for a future yet to occur:
James’ ability to create vibes continues. Here, an effervescent meditation, drifting at it’s own leisurely pace, a merger of a down-home style with futuristic polish, all combining to create sense of presence which could effortlessly float forward and back through history.
This is a song set explicitly in a future where space travel is an implied common occurrence. It is an embodiment of our terminal optimism – hope in the face of doom, a better world quite literally beyond the sick one we know and exist within.
Here the vocal inflection and the impromptu panache coursing throughout evokes both an imperative to action and a state of complete liberty, ease, and freedom. Menace is not absorbed but instead directed outward against stagnation.
In this song we encounter a space-aged pastoralism, a blend of synthesized sounds and various instruments, styles, and traditions. There is at once furious movement and contented ease, a musical landscape that feels organic yet ethereal, a feeling of peace, untethered and unfettered, which creates a sense of boundless freedom just over yonder hills.
The Song as Manifesto
It is doubtless that the manner in which we have described our music and it’s relation to the beliefs and approaches we’ve espoused has thus far been charitably read as abstract. While we all freely admit to a preference for indulging in feathery, vapory vibes, taking any and all poetic license, and have no fear of dwelling in the abstract, we still have concrete demands, and are plenty willing to issue them much more directly.
To do so, we make use of the song as a compact manifesto, couching our polemics in a peppy affect, funky beats, and more conventional styles. Our hope is that for those who are of a similar mindset, it can be a means of comfort, a distant call from a common traveler in dark and foreboding seas; for those who are apathetic or antagonistic, groovy vibes can provide cover for it’s explicitly political and revolutionary intent, worming its way into the mind of such listeners. This is the primary intent and approach of VercinFeatherix, as demonstrated below:
In each, we have disco/dance music saturated in political content, making compact attempts to use pop-y music against itself, replacing its bland, nihilistic consumerism with that of class struggle, general strikes, revolution, and ultimately liberation.
IV Toward the Future
We make no bold claims or hold any lofty pretentions as to being originators of any of the ideas, elements, styles, or techniques that have been laid out in this document, neither in a theoretical, technical, or musical sense. We tread upon ground well traveled, and in the vast history and tradition of musical practice we are but mites on fleas.
Similarly, we also intend no assertion that what we’ve outlined is the “best” or “only” approach, nor to be rigidly proscriptive. We are well aware that all of this is a reflection of our own specific experiences, preferences, and inclinations. The struggle in which we regrettably find ourselves adjusts itself to every context it encounters. So too, our countermeasures must be as flexible and adaptable to local or even personal conditions. It is vital that we open as many new fronts as possible, strike from all angles, by any means available. It would be the height of absurdity and hubris for us to think, let alone claim, that matters of taste could possibly have hierarchy. It is the great variety, shades and hues, obvious and subtle differences between us which provide the fabulous contours and texture to artistic expression, and which add depth and weight to our universal demands.
Rather, we hope that this can serve as a glance into one specific way that that broader struggle has manifested for us in our particular circumstances. We hope as well that the themes we’ve touched on and experimented with can be improved upon and advanced beyond our means and abilities.
Above all, it is our hope and earnest desire to see that happy day when tyranny can at last be overcome, or at the very least, that we can all pull that wagon a little further up the hill together.