Trends are often thought of as cyclical, and as they drop to the floor of the ocean of social consciousness, they swim underneath larger trends only to surface again. That there is an explosion of of EBM, industrial, glitch and other tech-specific genres of music coming back to the mainstream from their heyday in the ’80s really grabs our attention, and possibly tricks us into thinking that it, unlike other children of postmodernism, will have permanency. Contributing to that is musical project EMA, which I refer to as a project and not a band as it is merely Erika M. Anderson’s reinvention from a bleach-blond pop Madonna-to-be from 2010 to an “edgier” experimental artist in black. Her album The Future’s Void, is clearly evidence for this style pivot that relies heavily on what is arguably the most celebrated cyberpunk work of all time now that it has become too relevant to ignore in modern society. I am talking about—and EMA can’t shut up about—William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
I won’t claim that this is EMA’s fist foray into tech exploration and its connection to modern society. “Coda” from Past Life Martyred touches on a depressing note about online interactions and explorations anyone had experienced if they’ve found themselves on Facebook at one in the morning, or when they’re first woken up, or for longer than a glance which is what it should be warranted most of the time. One line from “Coda” goes:
I looked on the computer
And it just was an emptiness that
Made me want to throw up on the spot
This displays a clear distaste for tech and how it is slowly redefining out post-geographic world where all is connected and nothing is private. While it comes through clumsily, not at all like Holly Herndon’s “Home,” a far better exploration at the loss of privacy through tech from government bodies as well as other members of the Internet citizenry which, in my opinion, is a more poignant position to take, “Coda” highlights a very on-the-nose approach EMA had taken in the past. So how does that bode for The Future’s Void?
The album opens with “Satellites,” which I would claim is the strongest track on the entire album, and the decision to have it as the first single was correct. Touching on her claims to have referenced a great deal of Neuromancer in composing this album, regrettably this is possibly the most milquetoast of all when it comes to lyrics. There are references to the Cold War, highly influential in Gibson’s early work, but to early cyberpunk in general. Aside from that, the video actually does a better job. An Oculus Rift is an appropriate stand-in for an Ono Sendai cyberdeck, and the fragmented communication of images and the ensuing drug-like sickness a cowboy might get from jacking in is well represented visually. It saddens me that the rest of the album fails to keep up its momentum.
When composing a concept album, taking a theme or a cohesive story that will be threaded throughout all tracks, there has to be some coherence. There isn’t to say that there’s no room for experimentation, as EMA tries quite a bit of that, but when it overpowers the theme, the albums fails conceptually.
While “Satellites” works for me as a listener, its “3Jane” that I find to be representative of the album as a whole. The name alone is a reference readers of the book will instantly recognize and would logically believe to be the strongest of the album. Why else give it that name? Instead what we got was a weepy ballad that could be inferred as a testimonial to the complications of long-distance relationships, a malignant social disease made more complex and unsure by the internet. It could also be seen as an acceptance of those problems and a willingness to move forward in spite of it. Perhaps because of it? There are also a few more Cold War references.
What irked me most about the second single was its video, because it confirmed in me a sneaking suspicion I had while listening to the entire record. Yes, “3Jane,” like “Satellites” showcases technology from homeostatic user interfaces to robot girlfriends and quad-copter drones. But what’s really on display here is an art student’s heavy-handed attempt at profundity by beating the audience on the nose with non-connecting art that betrays the promises of a theme the album had set out to connect. At times you’d be right for feeling like you were viewing a Goo Goo Dolls video as the emotion is not so much communicated—and this could be said for the song itself—but forcefully fed. And that is my biggest problem with The Future’s Void as an album, it doesn’t feel organic, never comes does it come across as a true concept album as she promised, but more a collection of works EMA decided fit a celebrated work just enough to pass as a companion piece.
Stylistically, what we have here is a musician still working on developing their sound and mastery of their art. Tracks such as “3Jane” and “Neuromancer” say that she has a strong idea of where it is she’s trying to go with her sound but has yet to reach it. She tries to emulate Madonna, incorporate a bit of early Reznor, but neither the celebrity nor the intensity is present to take her above trying.
However, even with all these missteps, and a glaring betrayal of what I’d argue is one of the best novels of the 20th century by association, The Future’s Void merits a listen. There are a few tracks worth listening even if the album altogether drips pretense as it tries very desperately to be subversive when it is truly at home in the mainstream.