Latest From Ian Svenonius Aims to Break Molds and Eardrums
Ian Svenonius is keeping music weird. The punk multi-hyphenate has been on the Washington D.C. scene for decades, releasing over twenty-one albums with several bands such as The Nation of Ulysses, Weird War, and Chain and the Gang. He’s explored “underground” book authorship, releasing titles such as The Psychic Soviet and Censorship Now!!. In 1990, now-defunct Sassy Magazine dubbed him “ The Sassiest Boy in America,” despite his being well over the competition’s age restrictions. He’s part Marxist philosopher, part auteur, and part mop-headed caricature of punk’s radical voice.
Put lightly, Svenonius is a satirical outlaw, a self-described inauthentic observer and, above all, the most occult rockstar that has ever existed. Therefore, his new album Introduction to Escape-ism should come as no surprise to his fanbase.
This is the first official solo album from Svenonius. Previously, he’s put out solo music under the guise of his alter ego David Candy, but this record, the first to be released under the Escape-ism moniker, sees Svenonius peel back the layers of stardom as he sees it. He goes at 2017’s problems with a ten-pound sledgehammer, making no effort to hide behind even the slightest hint of pretense. Svenonius wants you to know this is an album of utmost importance, and manages to hurt your ears in the process.
Introduction to Escape-ism ventures into meta-conceptual territory, and eclipses even the loftiest of commentary records that came before it. Indeed, the title itself begs the question of what exactly an “introduction” might entail. The album itself is almost unlistenable in its industrial workings. The playlength is incredibly short: a concise collection of nine songs (somatic impulses, really) clocking in at just under 32 minutes. All songs are lyrically simple and center around one cohesive concept—most often prefaced in the song title.
Lead track “Walking in the Dark” begins without any hesitation, and immediately you’re thrown into a painful soundscape over a sentient drum machine shuffle. There’s no hand-holding here, no thin thread of comfort, as crunching guitars and muted vibraphones accompany Svenonius as he discos into thunder-backed obscurity. “I called your name, no one was there / I was looking for you almost everywhere / I knew you’re in the room upstairs / didn’t know which door, and I was scared,” doesn’t make much sense by itself, but coupled with the inaccessible noise of Svenonius’s production, the song takes on a life of its own.
The song “Lonely at the Top” is a jarring reflection on enlightenment and success. A true philosophical conundrum, he believes there is nowhere left for someone already extremely successful to grow, and no more stairs to climb. Svenonius yelps and hisses before coming to some frosty solace, “it’s cold and lonely at the top.” Svenonius makes no effort to pretend: “There’s only room for one, and it’s me” he reveals, but over the sound of icepicks hitting solid rock, the song begins to present itself as the painstaking journey to “success,” rather than to success incarnate. After a screeching guitar solo, the song comes to an abysmal end with the line “I want to get down, but I can’t/I’m scared of lights/I climbed up here to the pinnacle, just to see my name in lights.” This is the brand of unique introspection, super-imposed over harsh instrumentalism that you can expect from the entire album.
The songs on Introduction to Escape-ism are not pretending to be something they’re not, but they are not pretending to be appealing, either. The album is a reflection on rock n roll sensibilities, and the emergence (and lack thereof) of real content in rock’s past. In an interview with The Drone in 2012, Svenonius called rock and roll a direct response to the Cold War: “Rock and roll was a proxy agent for capitalism in a lot of ways. It was commandeered by market forces and proliferated around the world as a kind of spokesperson for youth and sex, and insinuating that a capitalist system translated into this kind of freewheeling, anti-intellectual youth, sex, thing.” This notion—of what the government wants us to believe and support—has been explored in Svenonius’s work before, in one form or another, from the pastiche rock of Nation of Ulysses to the anti-war group, Weird War.
Unlike his past records, Svenonius is more unassuming on Introduction to Escape-ism, yet just as provocative. For example, the track “Iron Curtain” takes on a boundless significance given our current political climate, but it would have worked just as well in Red Scare-era America or even in the Reagan-era. The song begins with throbbing Moog synths, before Svenonius delivers the punchline: “Build a wall, make it tall, make it long, make it strong, make it stout, keep them out, keep us in, that curtain.” The song is more of a spoken-word philosophy than a musical exploration, but it makes the hair on your arms stand up nonetheless, due to its barbarous refrain.
This album is rough; around the edges and from the center out. Proceed with caution, but definitely proceed if you want some aggravating industrial post-punk, or perhaps a step to some form of enlightenment. Svenonius is at his most pointed and poignant, with songs that target new fame: “Almost No One (Can Have My Love)” asserts the lyric “almost anyone can be an artist, they can put art on the wall / all you gotta do is know someone with a wall, that’s all;” and on “Crime Wave Rock,” Svenonius calls out modern pop music –“every note breaks a law.” Ian Svenonius keeps the train rolling here, in his own trademark fashion.