In art and in life, the act of innovating isn’t simply that of creating the new, but also of rejecting the old. It’s a form of renunciation, of denunciation, and of destruction, since in producing original forms and contents, the pioneering artist or individual can’t help but pass negative judgment on everything that came before her works, at least by omission. She can’t help but inadvertently declare that older ways of doing things aren’t for her, that’s she’s judged them as having little value or relevance, and that she’d rather ditch the people who continue to maintain them than reside with said people in the past. As such, she not only invites the anger of those who are inevitably spurned by her innovations, but also becomes an outsider in the process. She places herself on the extreme margins of society, where she begins the hard, tiring life of self-imposed social and cultural exile, and where she may push herself to the edge as a result of losing the cozy validation that comes from being part of the crowd.
Perhaps this isn’t exactly the path every musician follows through their career, but on Uncanny Valley, it very much seems like the path cut by Stabscotch. A trio out of Bloomington, Indiana, the band’s second album (but label debut) is a barely classifiable nightmare of avant-garde metal, psychedelia, and noise that, in rejecting almost every received notion of “rock music,” alienates itself from every pre-existing rock scene. Sure, it contains recognizable sonic landmarks (distorted guitars, flailing drums, rasping vocals, tape abuse), yet it’s clear that they’re pushing them to unrecognizable extremes, playing and structuring them in a way that transforms them from affirmations of rock to the genre’s negation. But more than this, it’s also clear that the quest to do something different and be something different has taken its toll on Stabscotch, and that because of their strivings for artistic freedom, their music speaks of the suffering and strain of lacking social freedom, of being an outcast.
This strain and suffering is evident in “Open Sesemji,” where syncopated drums introduce a fractured succession of doomy, swirling guitars; intermittent and abrupt pauses of silence; an echoing, reverb-soaked, minatory guitar line; bursts of feedback’d noise; a tormented coda featuring plenty of delay and tremolo picking. As unsettling as these disjointed elements are on their own, vocalist Tyler Blensdorf spends their duration fulminating about his departure from readymade value systems, which in this case appear to take the form of religion. Rather than lose himself in a religion or system that has him “choking in lies,” he rancorously declares that, now, “I choose the elegy that echoes my body and blood.” Amidst the occasionally cavernous, occasionally abrasive musical attack of his bandmates, he affirms that he’s now become the sole driver, determiner, and judge of his existence, doing so with such closet existentialist lyrics as, “This place that I have chosen/ I’ll call it my home/ This place that I have chosen/ I’ll call it my throne.”
Yet the raspy tone of his voice suggests that he isn’t too happy about his turn toward self-determination, which is why the remainder of Uncanny Valley plays out as an exhibition of the sheer creative potential of the individual, on the one hand, and as an exhibition of how such creativity can transform him or her into a discontented, unloved misfit, on the other. To put things as simply as possible, almost every one of the album’s 18 tracks is brimming with musical inventions and oddities while also brimming with bile, anger, frustration, and loathing.
On the winding, sinewy “Nick of Time,” this bile comes out in a seeming tirade against the conformity and passivity of humans. Amidst clean yet psychotically funky electric guitar, Blensdorf testily adopts the perspective of someone who’s given up their individuality to the masses, proclaiming, “By all means, don’t wait for me/ My desire to remain has defeated my dream/ To them, it’s only good when you’re sleeping with apes.” Similarly, on the energetically psychedelic “Tanic” — one of many album highlights — he hints cryptically at a conflict between himself and his own artistic impulse, ranting, “Plowing through my tragedies/ Drunk by my own melody/ Toxic pearls benign/ A crime of myself/ Flood my fevered energies/ Until the day I fly.” In these lines, he appears to be outlining how creatives can become slaves to their own personal muses, inviting several waves of severely whammy’d guitar with the threat,“You don’t deny/ You’re the bitch of my life/ And you come out to my name.”
Elsewhere, he rails against the “Unknown pleasures that control me,” indicating through a storm of high-pitched, violent guitar thrashing how a willingness to forge ahead on your own path leaves you disoriented and stranded, without easy guides for knowing how best to act and to live. On the ambient and ominous “I Master,” he confesses to another inner-conflict when he says,“My weakness is bound to split and kill the lesser half,” preparing the way for the band to erupt in a frenzy of overdriven guitars and machine-gunning drums. And on the album as a whole, he and the band generally struggle with themselves and their own pursuit of freedom, which, as the brutal, antisocial music evokes, has ironically alienated them from the rest of the world and thereby made them less free (in certain respects).
Yes, Uncanny Valley paints them as being less socially free insofar as its lyrics suggest they’ve dug themselves into a secluded corner, yet it almost goes without saying that it’s precisely this sacrifice that enables the album to be so unbridled and powerful in its inventiveness. Its tracks employ a varied palette spanning doom metal, noise, psychedelia, math rock, weirdo funk, and ambient, and they stretch this palette into unusual shapes and structures, taking the band’s intense music in unexpected yet forceful directions. Of course, these directions entail that the Indiana band shun all peers and pre-existing scenes, leaving them isolated and bent out of shape as a result, yet in the end, it’s just this isolation and out-of-shape-ness that makes Uncanny Valley one of the most interesting “rock” albums to have emerged in a while.