To anyone born during the shitstorm of post-war Pop Culture (which includes, of course, anyone reading this), soundtrack music is as much a part of your critical makeup as Pop, Rock, Jazz or any other popular genre. Whether you know it or not.
Soundtracks are a big part of the, yes, soundtrack of our lives – whether osmosed through movie music, ads, games or even elevator Muzak – these orchestral bagatelles seep into our minds, often subliminally because we are focussed on the game, movie scene, product or telephone on-hold void which they service.
Ironically, without our knowing it, these (often brilliant) pieces of gebrauchsmusik prime us, subconsciously or semi-consciously, for an appreciation of orchestral colour, concepts and quirks. I myself can say that when I first heard Frank Zappa‘s Lumpy Gravy I was familiar with much of the orchestral dissonance and surreal soundscapes Zappa wrote, through childhood OD’ing on Carl Stalling‘s bug-eyed Bugs Bunny scores and Star Trek‘s lunar themes. (I also know that when I first sampled drugs, I recognised this new surreal disconnected feeling from mid-1960s Lost In Space‘s neo-Mussorgskyisms and Twilight Zone mood pieces…)
The music of Sydney polymath Luis Rojas‘ nine-headed prog-orch collective, Shanghai, is deeply coloured by the orchestral palette of soundtrack music. It is equally coloured by pop, metal, jazz, lame country and classic rock – but it is the breadth and depth of orchestral music which gives this remarkable group permission to push the envelope into some very weird and some very wonderful shapes.
Their 2010 album, The Battle for Mount Analogue was a mix-tape of pieces from game shows, cartoons, movies etcetera – a loving homage to the music that is all around us, bleeping and roaring and splashing and chirping and bugging us at every turn, in every elevator and in every Coles aisle.
Their new release, The Ultraviolent, is big, bad and beautiful – the result of five years of painstaking work and thought on behalf of Rojas and his motley and magnificent nine. There they all are on the sumptuous movie-style poster-cum-album-art: The Mechanic, The Sheriff, The Assassin, The Crow, The Bounty Hunter, The Android, The Gangster, The Harlot and Rojas himself – dressed as a vengeful preacher, named The Nameless. Steampunk, space opera, anime, trash fiction, comic book Götterdämmerungs and pulp heroes abound – and the music fits all of the phantasies perfectly.
There are tinges of Zappa from the outset on the sarcastic guitar and slicing orch-chops of opener ‘Transliminal Gameshow’ and the cheese-rock propulsion of ‘Triggerhappy’, wild Fantomas-style genre-smashing on first single ‘Caveat Emptor’ and even a gorgeous Ennio Morricone spaghetti-Western trumpet lullaby on ‘A Murder of Crows’. These influences and name-checks are there, yes, but the overall conception and sound world is Shanghai’s.
Many of The Ultraviolent‘s twists and turns had me laughing out loud – ‘Ménage à Trois’ jump-cuts from some howling Black Metal into a silly piece of cowboy corn. ‘The Mercy Killings’ and its even bleaker sister, ‘The Greed Killings’ lull one into a somnambulistic state, only to mess with you when you are too narcoleptic to fight back. If you weren’t paying attention you would get whiplash.
And then, after our senses and sensibilities have been wrenched back and forth over the time and space of The Ultraviolent there appear two gorgeous pieces of Pop loveliness – the last two cuts (bar the 15 minute ‘hidden’ track) – pieces so satisfyingly delicious that they almost seem a prize or a gift for having hung on for the preceding nail-biting ride.
The first is ‘Buffed Silver is Shiny’, a Pop gem that could have come from latter-day XTC or They Might Be Giants – quirky and bittersweet with harmonic modulations with their own sweet (and sour) logic. The next, the album closer is ‘Sleepless Night on the Pacific: Sidelights on the Observation and Control of the Shenzhou’, a Beatlesque psych epic that lulls lysergic ally and takes you away on the wings of the strings. Magnificent.
As mentioned above, The Ultraviolent has taken five years of Luis Rojas and Shanghai’s creative life to come to fruition. You can hear every hour of that five years across the perfect skin of the album, and yet – despite the minutely tweaked details and truly symphonic, in every sense, breadth of the music – it sounds remarkably fresh and emotionally rich. It is gratifying that in this age of doom and gloom for the music industry, artists such as Shanghai work through the defeatist clouds rolling in from all sides, hold fast to their vision and do what musicians should do: take us somewhere good, beautiful and deep with love and spirit.
Don’t miss the experience of The Ultraviolent.
Published September 2015 on theorangepress.net