I Speak Machine – ‘Zombies 1985’ reviewed

❉ An abrasive and ethereal love letter to the pioneers of industrial and electronica.

With all due respect to cinema’s early pioneers, the most fundamental medium for storytelling is sound. In mass media terms, sonic storytelling tends to be seen as the province of radio drama or audiobooks rather than music. To the extent that music is seen in that light in popular music genres – “popular music” used here with extreme flexibility – it generally takes the form of singer-songwriter stylings or “concept albums”. Zombies 1985, the new album by the duo I Speak Machine, falls outside that polarity and is all the more interesting for it.

A collaboration between vocalist and self-identified “synth nerd” Tara Busch and filmmaker Maf Lewis, I Speak Machine makes both sci-fi/horror films and the soundtracks to those films. Collectively, these are presented as a “live score film”, where an in-concert performance of the soundtrack accompanies a showing of the film. The latest of these is Zombies 1985, which was performed/shown on a US and UK tour opening for Gary Numan. In addition to music for the Zombies 1985 film, the album features a number of additional songs – co-written (as is the rest of the album) by Benge, a musical associate of Ultravox founder John Foxx – that Busch describes as “a love letter” to the music of 1985.

Among the touchstones Busch cites for these “mutant songs” are electronic-music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and Chris & Cosey. This shows through on songs such as Shame and Trouble but is by no means the only apparent influence. The music often veers deeper into industrial and ethereal approaches. At times, their mix of the atmospheric and the abrasive suggests the love-child of 4AD and Wax-Trax Records, alternately haunting and alarming.

The latter traits are often displayed in close proximity. The duo doesn’t hesitate to add aural discomfort into the equation, sometimes in the middle of an otherwise meditative track like Honey I’m Home. In short, Zombies 1985 isn’t an album for everyone.

It is, however, a record that works to put the listener in the world of the films that inspired it. Petrified Mind in particular conveys a bleak, almost apocalyptic mood but is also strangely engaging. In this respect, the decision to make the album using only equipment available in 1985 comes to mind. Despite the emergence of digital synthesizers in this period, analog devices were still prevalent. Though “warmth” is perhaps the wrong word to characterize their sound, it at least suggests that the humans are playing the machines and not the other way around.

This is especially apparent on the final track, New Dawn. The mix of melodic elements – each fairly simple in their own right – is immaculately crafted and quite captivating. Maybe it’s intended for the listener to contemplate the end of the world or the start of a new one. Perhaps it’s both. Like the rest of Zombies 1985, it’s storytelling as an audio Rorschach test, using the mechanisms of the past to look forward. It’s hard to say what moment Busch, Lewis and Benge had in mind, but it certainly fits the one we’re living in now.

❉ Zombies 1985 – ‘I Speak Machine’ was released 8 September 2017. LP, DD & CD on Lex Records (Lex121) and is available to order on CD and vinyl from Amazon, digitally via iTunes and in both physical and digital formats via Bandcamp. I Speak Machine, Lex Records and illustrator Tommy Lee Edwards are currently working together on new projects.

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