Movers in New York’s art world, Aaron David Ross and Matthew Arkell couch their Gatekeeper project in terms that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Whitney Biennial catalogue. According to Exo‘s press release, the performance artist and gallerist/curator are “pre-occupied with what it means to engage in a high-definition society” — a white-cube concept par excellence, and the epitome of a First World problem. But their visceral second album makes a gritty impact that belies its omnipresent YouTube hiss and cloud-based theorizing. There’s a profound negativity at the heart of their nail-bitten rhythms and queasy, digital timbres, a sense that all is not right in the cybernetic matrix.
Like Shackleton, Gatekeeper prefer their dubstep broken-down and feral, more Mad Max than Max Martin; like their label-mate Laurel Halo, they favor synthesizers with a buzz like burnt filament. Surprisingly, their dystopian futurism frequently looks to the past: The corrosive acid of the early ’90s, particularly from labels like Rephlex and R&S, is a main stylistic cue; so are the burnt-ozone flavors of techstep, a bygone style of drum ‘n’ bass, and the blast-furnace intensity of Surgeon’s industrial techno. It’s a far cry from the hazy nostalgia so prevalent among media-obsessed electronic musicians these days — rancid instead of rose-tinted, clenched instead of chilled. The record’s grim inclinations find common cause with rave culture’s extremists and outliers of two decades ago — as well as the post-punk and industrial prophets before them. The technology may be updated, but the underlying sense of anxiety is the same. True to its title, Exo wears its pixels like an impenetrable crust around a heart that’s wormed with doubt.