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Joni Void - Mise En Abyme Music Album Reviews

French-British producer Jean Cousin draws despair and wonder from within the vast unfeeling of digital communication.

“You are, and will always be, your depression,” intones a computer-synthesized voice on Joni Void's song “Deep Impression.” It's the exact opposite of what you'll hear in therapy, where the goal, more or less, is to separate what you feel and what you are, so that you might more easily bear the former. But there is value, and humor, in naming the wrong thing, the deep and abiding fear, especially when you force a robot to speak it.

Mise En Abyme, the second album Jean Cousin has released as Joni Void, liquefies many of the jagged edges jutting up from 2017's Selfless. The Montreal-based producer still collages—the album is constructed from sound sources both intimate, like home movies, and nonspecific, like dial tones—but the rocky, queasy slosh that characterized the project's debut abates. Selfless sounded like it was gnashing its teeth, a fantasyland of tension and bruxism. Mise En Abyme subsumes that anxiety into a series of songs that court despair and wonder with equal fervor.

Vocals abound on the album's first side, giving the ear something to grip even when they add more texture than narrative. "Dysfunctional Helper" layers a wordless melody sung by Ayuko Goto (also known as Noah, who appeared on Selfless) over a squeaking industrial beat, emphasizing the sanctuary that the voice and the act of singing, even idly, can create in the mind. The percussion suggests urban chaos, while the voice induces calm. "Lov-Ender" braids samples of Montreal musician Catherine Debard's voice into psychedelic polyrhythms. Both songs find their beat over time, rather than being led by it. Human noise directs the machine sound, instead of the other way around.

The most striking vocal moments on Mise En Abyme come during "Abusers," a song featuring the voice of Montreal-based experimental harpist Sarah Pagé. She sings diffusely, like Goto and Debard, but approximates words that can't quite be made out. Consonants border vowels, daring the ear to tease out language, but language doesn't come. Pagé's performance grows more agitated over her gentle accompaniment until it peaks in a ragged scream, a non-verbal middle finger to the pervasive trend of using women's voices as set dressing in electronic music. She refuses to be pleasant decoration; she strains against the song until she breaks open its mold.

If the record's first half concerns vocal communication, side B stages its breakdown. On "No Reply," Joni Void samples answering machine messages, dial-up modems, and the unmistakable glitchy static old cell phones used to cast across nearby speakers just before receiving a call or text. These are obsolete sounds of anticipation and disappointment, sounds heard playing phone tag on a landline or picking up the receiver while someone else in the house tried to connect to the internet. Maybe they sound like alien noise to someone who's only known one millennium, but Joni Void doesn't aim for nostalgia here; "No Reply" doesn't fetishize these sounds, but attempts to locate the self within their milieu, pinging old memories and tracing them forward to the present. What bodily response does a busy tone prompt? What old tension or melancholy does it dredge up in the nervous system?

Cousin’s own voice appears on "Voix Sans Issue," a piece that spills vocal notes into a Shepard tone swoop, but it's that text-to-speech track "Deep Impression" where the producer's presence is most acutely felt. There's something deeply funny about loading lyrics into a Vocaloid; Joni Void's words rhyme like they're meant to be rapped, and yet a simple voice program cannot rap, cannot place extra emphasis on given words or swing them around the beat. The computerized performance is clumsy, lacking spontaneity and specificity, yet it remains vulnerable, a frank confession of pain distanced by ventriloquism.

Within the robotic monologue, Joni Void preempts this very review: "I don't have time for you critics/Whatever you think of this song/It's absolutely wrong… You're giving a rating to my suffering." I am, and I'm sorry. Here we are in hell, a place where we offer our traumas to advertising companies and hope we reap enough reward to pay rent. But between the measurements of technocrats, there is still space, I think, for genuine communication. There's the chance to hear data transformed into music and feel music ring in the body, where the trackers can't yet reach. There is still experience that can't be atomized and analyzed, however slippery it may be even to those feeling it. Mise En Abyme hunts that sensation of flux and liminality, unearthing warmth in a landscape of paranoia.

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