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Gazelle Twin - Pastoral Music Album Reviews

The Brighton electronic musician’s third LP belongs to a proud tradition of English satire, plumbing the depths of the nation’s psyche and twisting it to wryly discomforting ends.

In Kingdom Come, the final novel by the late British sci-fi author JG Ballard, the London suburbs fall under the spell of fascism. This isn’t the old-school fascism—born from the street, or the ballot box—but the product from a new and unexpected source: that cathedral to consumerism, the shopping mall. On its release in 2006, Kingdom Come felt somewhat fanciful. It functioned as an arch satire of capitalism, but seemed a little too far-fetched to feel like a warning of things to come. In 2018, viewed from a United Kingdom rent in half by the Brexit vote and beset by right-wing demagogues pushing prejudice from behind a mask of populism, it feels, if anything, a little too on the nose.

Two years ago, Elizabeth Bernholz, the Brighton musician who records brittle, unsettling electronic music under the name Gazelle Twin, brought Kingdom Come to the stage in the form of a theatrical performance. Her take on the novel located the horror in Ballard’s vision, but also the pitch-black humor. In it, a pair of power-dressed office workers pounded gym treadmills into the depths of a nightmarish, deserted mall. Bernholz wasn’t on stage as part of the Kingdom Come performances—partly, she explained, as a way of expanding the Gazelle Twin project into new conceptual realms, and partly because she gave birth to her first child shortly after its debut. But Pastoral, her third official full-length, picks up where Kingdom Come left off. Its 14 tracks form a manic state-of-the-nation address that finds Bernholz identifying the dark impulses coursing through the English psyche and then twisting them to her own ends.

The England that Bernholz pictures on Pastoral feels like hell itself: a rainy fascist island of regressive tradition and hate-peddling tabloids, callous and bigoted and drunk on curdled dreams of empire. One by one, she identifies its demons and then embodies them, her voice electronically twisted into a cruel, androgynous leer. “Better in My Day” is about the meanness of nostalgia, that refusal to relinquish cultural capital to younger generations. “Just look at these kids now,” she chants, as drums beat out a queasy, off-center tattoo. “Dance of the Peddlers” is an unsettling confection of trilling pipes and ticking percussion; its lyric interpolates lines from William Blake’s “The Tyger” with allusions to medieval torture and the phone-hacking scandal that embroiled many of the UK’s tabloid newspapers at the start of the decade. “Dieu Et Mon Droit” is a grim vignette of poverty delivered in a twisted operatic tenor: “Eating from bins outside supermarkets/Kicked into the curb like empty Coke cans.”

Pastoral echoes these disturbing themes with a disturbing sound, an uncanny mix of the ancient and the modern. Its production is crisp and electronic, all nervy drums and synthetic textures, but melodies are often played on old English instruments—recorders or harpsichords that are distorted or chopped up. “Over the Hills” mixes dreamy synths with a recording of a puppeteer singing the traditional British folk song “Over the Hills and Far Away,” a romantic paean to foreign invasion. This unnatural mash of signifiers is replicated in Gazelle Twin’s visual aesthetic. In the video for “Hobby Horse,” Bernholz trots out in her new stage costume: a sort of nightmare court jester sporting Adidas Gazelle trainers and riding a hobby horse pilfered from the bedroom of a Victorian child. It’s a genderless getup—all that’s visible of Bernholz’s face is a chilling Cheshire Cat gin—and the whole ensemble is colored in the visceral red of the St. George’s Cross, the English flag that has of late replaced the Union Jack as the favored symbol of right-wing pride.

Anxiety is a thread that runs through Gazelle Twin’s music. Her 2014 album Unflesh grappled with themes including miscarriage, euthanasia, and body dysmorphia. Pastoral is more outward-looking, but Bernholz’s status as a new mother feels key to understanding this record. One touchstone might be the debut album by Karin Dreijer’s Fever Ray project, another record that tackled the headspace of the post-natal experience. Both share a fascination with hideous make-believe, beset with visions of monsters crawling out of the woodwork. Both, too, have used vocal processing to elude or obliterate their makers’ identities. Dreijer applied pitch-shifting effects to make her voice androgynous, but Bernholz goes further, twisting her voice into something not quite human.

If Pastoral fits into any lineage, it’s the long tradition of English satire. There’s a similar spirit in Gazelle Twin’s music—a dangerous mischief, a fascination for the grotesque—to that which you’d encounter in a William Hogarth illustration or a Chris Morris sketch. You will find no comfort here. But it’s the job of an artist to capture something of the tenor of the age they live in, and Pastoral fits the bill: a mad jig along a cliff edge.

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