Superpang, a record label named after an obscure Super Nintendo game, is all about exploring strange musical concepts. Famous for their distinctive, text-only covers, this Rome-based netlabel has produced a sprawling discography since their 2020 debut, Guy Birkin’s Liminal Kicks. That unique record was a collection of algorithmically produced club tracks driven by supraphysiological tempos that shifted in exponents according to the Golden ratio, reaching a ceiling of 300,000 beats per minute!
Phantom Acid is yet another experiment from the Superpang clan. Twenty-four tracks, each one precisely 90 seconds in length, make up this unusual disc – which is described, in its press release, as post-human. In truth, this is the work of two producers, each with their own aesthetic, and each armed with their own digital tools.
Eric Frye is known for his audio experiments with the human voice. For example: Obfuscation Morphologies, an album in which he used software to alter recordings of speech, stripping them of their actual words. Deprived of verbal content, the voices became vague and unnerving utterances divorced of identity and context. In an interview with The Wire, he described this as a comment on privacy in the digital age. He sees his musical use of the voice-stripping software as a way of subverting the typical use case for these computer programs, which he believes are destined to be co-opted by big companies to nefarious ends. “I feel like I’ll find something like this voice obscuring process and I’ll be so happy to use it to see what it does,” he explained then. “These processes have a lot of power, and they should actively be shared with artists and musicians, people who are a wider audience in general. It shouldn’t just be relegated to a corporate structure, that’s going to take this and implement it into a smartphone or something, and have back doors to it or whatever.” In their corresponding notes, Frye’s productions will credit the programmers responsible for creating this software, and reference articles from linguistics journals – clearly, his sonic output goes hand in hand with the highly technical process he makes use of.
On Phantom Acid, Frye’s voice manipulations are fifty percent of the equation. The other half is the work of Jung An Tagen (born Stefan Juster), who turns the deconstructed phonemes into loops and converts them into strange approximations of rave music. Tagen, a veteran producer who has explored many different avenues of sound, lately has been focused on computer music – borrowing processes from ‘academic’ music and using them produce strange deconstructions of electronic dance music.
The ideas behind Phantom Acid make reference to other sound work. Psychologist Diana Deutsch used to run experiments where she would play looped recordings of single words to study participants, offsetting the left and right speaker channels. Eventually, the subjects would hear “phantom words” in the din: new words, made up words, words in foreign accents, etc. The same effect is embedded in Phantom Acid, both the work and title. But Phantom Acid’s most proximal connection is to their labelmates, EVOL, a hyperproductive duo who have concocted a whole host of sonic experiments and who claim to create “computer music for hooligans.” One of EVOL’s recurrent projects has been their spoofs on rave music, dubbed “rave synthesis,” in which they use computers to take sonic signatures of dance music and turn them on their head. To wit: their 100 Variations For Solo Hoover, which took a synthesized sound that was a mainstay of 90s rave music (the custom synth tone known as the “Hoover sound,” in reference to its auditory resemblance to a vacuum) and dissected it stochastically into one hundred separate compositions. (It was released in an edition of 100 CD-Rs, each copy containing one of the different variations such that no two were identical). You can imagine what their 2009 cassette, Fart Synthesis, was all about.
Listening to Phantom Acid is a jarring experience – the fragmentary tracks are punctuated by blebs of white noise, resisting the tendency toward passive engagement that often occurs with electronic music. Even the simplest tracks – e.g. a simple phoneme, looped – are undeniably rhythmic. Jung/Frye’s experiments reach their most sublime when the complexity is upscaled, quasi-melodies and basslines appearing amid the bedlam. Whether it is something to enjoy on a primal level, or merely to be appreciated on an intellectual one, is up for debate.