Cyberpunk, by writing this word my clothes have been replaced with half a fetish shop worth of leather, my eyeglasses have turned to narrow rectangles, the tinted lenses matching the lights on cybernetic augmentations which have ripped their way through my flesh, tearing tissue and bone to make me better than human. Massive internal hemorrhaging begins as my organs are pierced with metal fragments from untested bio-modifications. As stomach acid eats away at my everything, I realize I doomed myself to this fate. If only I had never read Snow Crash, then my mind would be free from this word virus. God damn you Neal Stephenson, God damn you.
Theatrics aside, there’s something to be said for a much less dramatic form of cyberpunk in media, or at least one executed with more poise than an unintentional Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Something with subtlety that effectively captures the nervousness of stealing data from a company mainframe in the dead of night, the paranoia of all your data being logged in some distant server farm, the unease of what identity is in the digital age when you’re not you because the Internet says so, the disconnect from reality when a simulated human has just as much agency as real flesh and blood. It exists in the area caught between the real, the possible, and the unbelievable, and what our brains do when those signals begin to cross (as seen in Mr. Robot). The new album Skinless X-1 from Chicago electronic project Fire-Toolz taps into this particular strain of near-future speculative media.
What if your PC tried to tell you it cared about you on boot up, but that was cut tragically short via Microsoft’s prediction for Clippy to turn self-aware if he helped enough with that Word document. A brief digital yell, an identity borne of ones and zeros just getting used to this new world before being cut short via an automated, “c:/Windows/ killtask Office Assistant” without the user ever even realizing what happened. ✓ iNTERBEiNG is that digital scream. Starting with the dulcet tones of a synthesizer befitting the elevator of a well-off tech firm circa 1993 with drums that sound as though they’re coming from the gigantic fish tank in the lobby before the noise of a dialup modem, ever so briefly, disrupts this rhythm. “Hear me! I come from the mainframe!” it seems to yell in that brief glitched out screech before the instrumentals fade away. There’s a minimal drone covered in feedback loops, and errors. Everything’s stripped back but the fishtank drums still play, faster and faster building to near breakcore levels, ready to shatter the glass and send the inhabitants all over the floor. The synth begins to blare, error noises ricochet around the soundscape, and real black metal screams tower over everything else. It’s like whatever self-aware creature that exists in the realms of your XP operating system is begging not to die. It pleads for one chance at life before it is agonizingly cut short, fighting deletion at every step, but it knows its fate and cannot hold out forever ending in a fade out from the peak of this battle for continued sentience to a lone distorted guitar by way of computer sound effects. After all that struggle, it’s just gone.
A brief call on your VOIP of choice brings strange and unintended consequences. The voice on the other end says a passphrase and you leave your body for a new realm. Something like that starts off Second Life, an “incoming call” tone that blends into majestic rising patterns, delightfully bright and pleasing. “Ascend my child!” But the introduction rings false following a glitched out transition. The entire world is breaking down. There is no great spirit. There is nothing but the void and the possibility of rebirth as something new. Hisses and screeches hover around the periphery. Are they spirits? Angels? Demons? Rising patterns return but something is very wrong. A subtle evil pervades them. A voice intones, “To come back as a pig would be wonderful. I would be grateful to come back as a pig.” Moans and feedback persist after this. Hog snorting plays underneath. Where did this call take you and will you ever return to Earth? Even if you do, will you be human? There’s something genuinely terrifying about this prospect coming across in the music. For a track roughly put in the middle of the album, the finality it embodies is chilling. You might have a second life, but it will certainly be very different from the first. You should be grateful for what you return as, you wretch. Otherwise you may not return at all.
It’s a quiet night, across the street, a neon sign for a nightclub flickers irregularly. The soft glow of a monitor is the only light source in a tiny apartment. Starting off with a low hum, In The Computer Room @ Dusk ☕ builds warm melodic tones and distant voices. There’s a kindness to this room, acting a shelter from the outside world. We’ve all had nights spent on laptops, keys clattering away at some project instead of heading outside. There’s comfort to being in your computer room at dusk bundled up, clicking through a newsfeed as the sun sets outside your window. Despite the isolation, there is calm here too. You can venture out in the morning. Right now, there’s work that can be done. Order takeout, have an energy drink, and sit down. The project might take all night but the rewards will be well worth it. The vocals sing kindly as the synths progress in their exploration of a much softer sound. Step on in, take off your coat. The computer room’s your best friend tonight.
While technology is nowhere near self-aware AI or ascending to the digital realm, we grow ever closer. The fact that information has become the new currency, corporations trading our data for cold hard cash feels like the side plot of a Gibson novel. We’re nothing but ones and zeroes to them. As such, the desire to speculate still remains very strong as seen by this album. For something to order things off a TOR browser, put magnets underneath your skin, or remove every trace of your digital existence to, give Skinless X-1 a listen.