Albums under £5: Phobotrax – Back to Kellion (2011)
By 1980, disco in America was as good as dead. The story of how it died is, like a lot of history, as fascinating as it is ugly – I could bury the lede two pages deep just talking about Disco Demolition Night, a story which begins with a radio DJ raising a private army over a professional grievance and ends with a mob of thousands tearing apart a baseball stadium – but the point is that by the close of the seventies it had retreated from public view, to mutate into genres like house. In Europe, however, it kept going, fuelled by artists like Giorgio Moroder. I’m not the disco historian I’d like to be, so I couldn’t give you the exact lineage, but at some point over the 1980s this strain of disco begat spacesynth. I really love spacesynth.
There are two things that make spacesynth great. One is the album covers, which are frequently excellent, and the other is the sense of wonder that you get from it. It’s an optimistic genre, one where a journey into the unknown is soundtracked by junobass and synth orchestras rather than the laments of the over-curious. The cover of Back to Kellion, as far as I can tell the only album by Phobotrax (real name Igor Wasilewski, according to the limited information out there) isn’t really up to the genre’s high standards, which is forgivable considering the budget they were probably working off of, but it more than makes up for this in terms of the joy that radiates from it. There are rough points to it. When he sings, Wasilewski runs his voice through some sort of vocoder to make it sound more futuristic and it ends up as a kind of rough buzz, maybe another casualty of the budget. Sometimes he tries to rhyme stuff like “shiny uniforms” and “obey the norms” and it all gets a bit McGonagall (though far less sinister than that couplet sounds out of context). But Back to Kellion delivers in spite of this because it’s an exciting album – there’s such a rush to be had out of the production, all driving rhythms and effervescent synth, and not even the tin-can-on-a-string vocoder can hide the genuine enthusiasm in Wasilewski’s voice.
One of the things that surprised me about Back to Kellion when I started reviewing it was that it’s an album of love songs as much as an album about space. Even songs like Destroyer, which I’d assumed was about a spaceship that destroyed things (lyrics aren’t my strong point) seems to be addressed to a woman at points. The combination works surprisingly well. Spacesynth’s optimism, it turns out, makes it incredibly well-suited for that period of elation that comes when you first fall in love, before the dread sets in (there’s an Amerie song here that works on a similar principle). Remember Our Time, for instance, looks back at a severed relationship but still makes love seem full of possibility, basking in the memory of the romance and promising that the couple will be back together “after planet crash”. The song never really explains what planet crash is, which threw me at first, but the more I think about it the more I’m into it – like there’s some world-building going on in the background.
Back to Kellion is a blast to listen to. It’s given life by Wasilewski’s passion, which is infectious, but there’s more than enthusiasm carrying the album. These songs are as catchy as any, and they’re full of inspired moments like the found-footage tape recordings knocking around the first couple of songs and the beautiful dissolve into ambience at the end of Convergence, the closer. I assume that music’s more of a hobby than a living for Wasilewski – the fact he released the album over Mediafire doesn’t suggest he’s got much of a network to work with – and I’ve no idea how much he’s kept at it beyond the three songs he’s released since, but Back to Kellion proves his talent beyond doubt. Here’s one more of those album covers to close out, because I cannot get enough of them.
Back to Kellion can be downloaded for free from here. Thanks to Spacesynth.net for information. If you want to know more about Disco Demolition Night, there’s a really good thing here that you should read while you’ve still free access to JSTOR.