My stupid friend and I once bugged a sofa. We ran weird club nights at which, after a bit of a boogie, punters would make their way to the seated area nestled on the far side of the bar. Chill-out areas in clubs usually have beer-glooped floors, a pile of random coats, and a faint whiff of weed. This chill-out sofa had something different. Firstly, we had a rifle mic aimed at it, picking up people’s conversations. Secondly, with the help of automatic transcription software, we threw a large projection, onto the wall behind the sofa, of everything they said. Word for word. Massive type.
As it happens it was a disaster. Back then, voice recognition had the subtlety of a Boris Johnson ballet dance. All the software could hear was the music spun by the DJs. So all it projected was a James Joyce-style stream of consciousness, without the literary pretension. “Bat dog clamp the clamp banjo trouser,” that kind of nonsense. Every snare drum translated as the word “fifth”, so there were a lot of fifths.
Thankfully, techno behemoths The Black Dog have more success with the sonic surveillance compilation ‘Conspiracy Tapes RMX’. Over the past few months, the Sheffield band has been mired in a project that feels truly sinister: a series of live ambient albums using conspiracy theorists as their sample sources. For example, last September’s ‘Conspiracy Tapes 02: Christian Science’ features paranoid religious types shooting the breeze about devil worshippers, alternative dimensions and, er, butt dials, all set to an hour of droning synths. “They built this new cathedral,” says one phone caller, “and when you walk inside it’s, like, snake eyes.”
These albums were big slabs of woozy, murky noise, and by and large seemed to pass under the radar. Thankfully we now have ‘Conspiracy Tapes RMX’, a digestible compilation that cuts the first few sprawling albums into neat 12-minute remixes. So now we have fleeting flat earthers (“so I’m correct!”) set to scowling static, and needle-sized anti-vaxxers spewing their nonsense to roomy percussive claps.
The music is slow and Eno-esque, with just enough warmth to contrast with the strange empathetic gap displayed by some of the theorists’ more disturbing “truths”. There are vocal-free versions on this album too, but the samples offer their own ambient landscape in the way that general room chatter can sometimes detune into a melodic babble. The voices rise and fall, overlap and cut out, and thoughts are interrupted by bad signals or arguments.
Despite this, their messages come through loud and clear: these are real people with real paranoias. The imaginary skin infestations of ‘Morgellons’ proves a difficult listen (“I had a tremendous amount of itching and burning… so much stuff came out of my face”). Most disturbing and, strangely, most impressive is ‘Brian Harvey’ featuring the East 17 star railing against the police in a now-controversial live stream that saw him arrested for malicious communications. “I will expose everyone,” he says. “I will do it.” His voice is full of swagger, but this is also the sound of a man in serious mental distress. The brilliant horizon-wide chords bedding his comments only serve to spotlight the tragic humanity: this is one of The Black Dog’s most beguiling works to date.
When we rigged that sofa, all we got was vacuous nonsense frustrated by old technology. The Black Dog have achieved something more meaningful which, although tough at times, recalls the very best of Scanner’s early phone surveillance experimentations. And not an errant “fifth” in sight.
Words by Fat Roland