Gareth Liddiard is here to warn about the march of technology
Here’s a fun exercise: Google “laughing death”.
One of the top search results is for kuru, a disease the Fore people of Papua New Guinea used to get because of something called “funerary cannibalism”, or the practice of eating the dead.
Until the 1960s, the Fore would eat their dead to help free spirits.
But proteins in the brain made people sick, and one of the symptoms – along with difficulty walking and talking and tremors – was uncontrollable laughter.
So: “laughing death”.
That explains one part of the name Laughing Death in Meatspace, the first album from Melbourne band Tropical F*** Storm, or TFS.
“Meatspace is what the peeps in Silicon Valley call the real world,” says Gareth Liddiard, frontman of TFS and The Drones.
“It doesn't have positive connotations.”
So, the name Laughing Death in Meatspace gives you an indication of what Liddiard – long regarded as one of the country’s finest songwriters for his novelistic eye and sharp tongue – might be getting at on this work.
There’s a rich tradition of pop culture being wary of technology.
A newspaper cartoon from 1906, headlined Forecasts for 1907, showed a man and a woman sitting under a tree, each with a wireless telegraph on their lap.
“These two figures are not communicating with one another,” the caption says. “The lady receives an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.”
You can draw a straight line from that to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and the Parquet Courts song ‘Content Nausea’. “An infant screaming in every room in your gut,” from the latter, is as good a description of social media as you’ll find.
It's like this endless family Christmas — everyone is connected now and hates each other.Gareth Liddiard
In February, I wrote about using phones at gigs and how you can break up with our handheld device. Technology is everywhere, and in Laughing Death in Meatspace we get a fine excoriation of its effect on society.
Liddiard says the record is not some “heavy proclamation about the end of the nation”, but instead a “aural disaster movie”.
“Disaster movies are fun,” he says.
This one happens to be soundtracked by Liddiard's snarls and the beat-heavy noise of bandmates Fiona Kitschin (The Drones), Erica Dunn (Harmony, MOD CON) and Lauren Hammel (High Tension).
“There's some weird catharsis about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or The Odyssey or The Iliad — everything goes wrong. [It’s] laughing in the face of death.”
Liddiard has spoken previously about how political songwriting is more difficult in the current climate of intense polarisation.
"The internet has phased out any moderate thought,” he said.
“We're just pushing two sides out further — the right and the left — and both sides think the other is completely wrong.”
Laughing Death in Meatspace pushes that idea further. The record is about “everyone cannibalising themselves on the internet”.
“It's like this endless family Christmas — everyone is connected now and hates each other,” he says.
‘Chameleon Paint’ is pretty pointed. It’s about the “shame and sin” of internet pile-ons, the endless moralising in comment sections:
'the day you’ve got nothing to say’s
the day I check your pulse
your ravings and your disses
your cruel cruel cruel cool'
The title track talks about alienation via the "Valley engineers":
'and we broke ties, atomised
and brought the schism on
how can you condemn someone
for simply being someone else?'
‘The Future Of History’ recalls chess master Gary Kasparov’s defeat at the hands of Deep Blue 20 years ago.
Kasparov was AI’s first victim.
'Kasparov saw our fate and cried out in despair
‘we are commanded by the monsters we have brought to bear!
and nobody does the dishes, the turkeys vote for Christmas,
gaslighted by the telephone that put Steve Jobs in business
and no one in the future plays chess, or cares!’'
The whole album feels resigned to defeat.
There is no laughing to Laughing Death. There is excellent rock and roll music, and excellent lyricism, and excellent melodies, but no laughing.
Yes, disaster movies are fun. But they are fun because they are outlandish but also because they contain a fragment of truth.
On the last line of the record, Liddiard seems almost exhausted.
He sings: “Where we going now?”
Tropical F*** Storm's debut album is out May 4. Gareth Liddiard is the Double J Artist in Residence for April. You can listen to his latest show right now.