TOTAL CONTROL - Laughing At The System MLP
On Alter Records
Absurdity is the guiding principle of the new EP from the Australian post-punk band. This delightfully bizarre release distills Total Control’s gnashing, dazzling appeal.
In the face of this nauseating existence, there is a long history of pranksterism as an art form and survival mechanism. Who doesn’t like some mischief every now and again? Total Control see this, smirk at it, and invite us along. “Laughing at the system! Laughing at the system!” Dan Stewart, aka DX, endears repeatedly on the bizarre new EP from his surrealist Australian post-punk band. Among the delightful rattle of galactic synths and industrial clatter, DX punctuates each snarling syllable with the exactitude of a metronome. His cast-out sentiment is echoed on almost every track of Laughing at the System. “Laughing at the meat machine,” DX lackadaisically taunts on a later track. “Ha ha ha/As the threads come loose,” goes another.
Total Control began in 2008 after DX read Nietzsche for the first time and his “life fell apart.” With two excellent LPs—2011’s Henge Beat and 2014’s Typical System—and countless affiliated projects, Total Control have become a countercultural force of consequence for underground punk fans. On Laughing at the System, the five-piece continue to draw on the dour stylings of 1980s synth-pop and death rock with thrilling tactility and deft language: DX’s dystopian flair feels increasingly and despairingly salient. The band calls Laughing at the System a companion to Typical System in the vein of anarcho-punk originators Crass’ bonus disc to 1982’s Christ the Album. Like Crass, Total Control stare “systematic death” in the eye—and it would be impossible not to in 2017, a year that has unveiled systemic failures to the masses almost daily. Still, absurdity is Laughing at the System’s guiding principle. “We are a stupid band from a stupid country,” Total Control recently said, or as DX put it in 2015: “[Australians] are frying under a horrible sun on inhospitable land and we have a queen that lives on the other side of the world… It just doesn’t make sense. We need a great sense of humor.”
Not surprisingly for a group with hardcore roots, Total Control flourish in the context of a 21-minute, eight-song EP: Laughing at the System neatly distills their gnashing, dazzling appeal. Limitations can be freeing, and here Total Control sound sharper and more spirited than ever. A fitting bit of levity invigorates their typically dense productions, even as this EP makes gleefully bonkers gestures: mad-scientist clankering, antagonizing circus music, abrupt shifts abound. The title track appears twice, and a sample of an instructional for making cheese disrupts a tricked-out head-scratcher of a psychedelic pop tune (“Future Crème”) that might otherwise recall Beck. Adding to the humor is DX’s general commitment to an arched-brow vocal delivery.
With “Future Crème,” though, he muses chipperly on “the taste of silicon/Fresh as cream,” narrating the dangers of everyday life, the chemicals in food that slowly destroy us. It feels like a modern response to the twisted Captain Beefheart conceit Safe as Milk. On “Vanity,” DX chants, “You never think! You never think!” among a swarm of guitar noise and lopsided drums. (His rolled Rs and shout-out to “Woody Mellor” are subtle nods to punk history.) The droning “Vote Cops” sounds just as hollowed and void-like as it should with a sad name like that.
Even the aspects of this EP that initially seem ridiculous or out of place reveal themselves to be neither wrong nor misplaced. The penultimate “Cathie and Marg” is a lovely Expanding Universe-style drone reverie—a little something to comfort us, perhaps? Maybe Total Control have been listening to ambient master Laraaji and investigating his laughter meditation workshops. The sing-song “Luxury Vacuum” cheerily narrates the unraveling order of things. And then there is the maniacal carnival music of “Her Majesty, Budgie,” which sounds like a tormenting merry-go-round ride in hell or a very odd monologue for the stage: “Enchanting plagues/Disturbing vaccines/Hyper sedate/The nice machine.” The first time I heard “Her Majesty, Budgie,” I misheard the lyric “laughing at the meat machine” as “laughing at the meme machine” (it would be Psycho Jazz, of course). It felt an appropriate mistake. Total Control make an EP of curveballs sound puzzlingly coherent thanks in no small part to their fine craftsmanship.
Permutations of the phrase “laughing at the system” reprise so persistently throughout this EP that it comes to feel like a concept piece. Of the two versions of “Laughing at the System”—one at the beginning and one at the end, both with the same apocalyptic detail—the closing take is superior: sped-up, severe and brutalized, the trash-compactor thrasher you could imagine on a Killed by Death comp. It is perhaps what DX had in mind earlier this year, in an interview about his 13-year-old hardcore band Straightjacket Nation: “Ultimately, a band is a group of people with a common taste in songs, and maybe a song is just a way to get a bunch of instruments laughing at the system.” He called it “malicious, cruel laughter.”
Laughing at the System is a punk parable: a clangoring meditation on the illusion of safety, on consumerism, on authority and on death, the fraying seams of life on Earth. The economy of language guiding its title track(s) stacks up alongside similarly aphoristic punk philosophies—“No Future,” “What We Do Is Secret,” et al—and it is at once critical and refreshingly uncynical. Total Control take things seriously enough to know when we could use a joke.
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