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Why Is There So Much: Harm’s Way’s “Posthuman”

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…in periods when capitalism functions in a so-called normal manner, and its various processes appear autonomous, people living within capitalist society think and experience it as unitary, whereas in periods of crisis, when the autonomous elements are drawn together into unity, they experience it as disintegration.

— Georg Lukacs, “Realism in the Balance”

We’re no longer subjects, no longer ones who “have been cast down.” Instead, we are, as philosopher Byung-Chul Han has it, “projects” who are “always refashioning and reinventing ourselves.” This is a new kind of freedom. But it arrives, paradoxically, as a series of coercions: to become transparent in the eyes of others and the state through social media; to forsake what little of solidity is possible with regard to identity; to dissolve any meaningful distinction between public and private. The list goes on.

This radical shift in the self’s situation has arrived when the world teems with data indigestible and overwhelming, when norms have atrophied into meaninglessness, or have been intentionally suspended, thus thrusting us into an epoch of perpetual exceptionalism. We are locked into a prolonged interregnum in common understanding backdropped by immanent ecological catastrophe. These are isolated, claustrophobic, and anxious times.

“How long is alone?” we ask.
“Why can’t I sleep?” we ask.
“Why is there so much?” we want to know.

“Gasp! / Constrict! / Can’t breathe!” vocalist James Pligge screams on Harm’s Way’s latest album Posthuman, released today via Metal Blade.

Posthuman’s major theme is the too-muchness of contemporary life. Opener “Human Carrying Capacity” explores Malthusian fears of overpopulation and overproduction. Debunked as Malthus’s ideas are, it’s hard to say there isn’t due cause for concern over the course we’re on: we’ve decoupled ourselves from connection to anything (even each other), and yet in our digital milieus, we’re packed tight and flailing. “Become a Machine” details our current entry into modernity’s hegemony of instrumental reason and obsession with efficiency.

“[‘Become a Machine’] is about how over-dependent society has become on technology and how such technological advancements, when placed in the wrong hands, can be destructive and catastrophic. The song also looks to critique whether all technology is really as beneficial as we might think,” Pligge explains in Metal Blade’s press release.

Comparing Posthuman to the band’s previous album Rust (2015) helps lay bare its project. First, Posthuman eschews a lot of the quarter-note chugging that stood out on Rust. This isn’t bad. In fact, it feels like a step beyond what was on offer on Rust. The band relies less on their outstanding drummer Chris Mills (whose fills on Rust are a thing to behold) to keep things lively. Instead, the tension that holds Posthuman together is the counterpoint between their metalcore riffing and their industrial loops (more prevalent here than on Rust). To put it another way, the tension between the human and the digital the record explores is realized, in part, in the tension between immediacy (band) and atmosphere (industrial ambience).

Not only that, but Will Putney’s production adds an extra element of alienation to the project. Kurt Ballou, who worked on Rust, has never been shy about why he runs everything through analog tape before it transfers over to digital. He wants the warmth. (If you drooled over his interview in Tape Op back in 2010, you learned how meticulous he is about segregating instruments in the engineering and mixing process). Putney’s interests feel diametrically opposed. This isn’t to say the mix or the engineering is murky; Putney is always clean. But Putney’s not of the near martial separation of sound school of mixing. So, Posthuman sounds sutured together, blended even. Instead of each instrument and each part of the drum kit having its own space, the instruments are housed by an all encompassing enclosure of sound.

And there’s no warmth, not even a whiff of it. The mix runs cold. That’s a good thing, because the record investigates what it means to leave behind the warmth of what we’ve held true about being human, and what it might mean to transcend to something else. The nature of this transcendence, of course, is ambiguous. At what cost? And for what gain? The lyrics reflect what’s going on the mix. If Putney’s wall-of-sound approach takes up all the sonic space leaving no air, so do Pligge’s lyrics. Take “Unreality”: it’s a dizzying arrangement of riffs that swallow the listener like a gyre. The song investigates the contemporary sense of being dislodged from reality. “My reflection / won’t look back / looking down / from a distant planet.” This is the degradation of the self distilled in the most brutal way possible. When our identities are disperse across multiple platforms, divvied up into different micro-communities, and the interpenetration of the digital with the actual makes everyday life bewildering, it’s hard not to feel enveloped and pulverized. It’s hard to imagine your reflection can gaze back and still resemble you.

What Harm’s Way has given us is a suffocating record that pitches back to us the static crisis of our everyday lives. We live at a fever-pitch of anxiety. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger sought to differentiate fear and anxiety. Fear belongs to the mortal terror of existential threat. Anxiety, however, has unclear origins: it can visit us while we wait for our train, while reading a book, or while making pasta as the steam rises to warm our brows. And, for him, anxiety is the perfect mood for philosophy because it dislodges us from the immediacy of the world. This provides us with the freedom to engage in philosophy, with the space to contemplate.

I submit that the anxiety we experience today is of a different order. It is the anxiety of freedom turned to coercion, of intimacy turned to claustrophobia. And it is the anxiety of moving beyond what we know ourselves to be, of becoming “posthuman.” This new record is the score to our departure and all of the terrifying prospects our forced march will make known to us.

— Emmet Martin Penney

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