Cyberpunk journey’s highs and comedowns
Juno Reactor, a rotating ensemble of international musicians and performance artists all tied together and led by Ben Watkins, has released their latest studio album – The Mutant Theatre. With nearly 30 years under their belt, Juno Reactor has made monumental contributions to trance and electronic music. Watkins intended for Juno Reactor to be a collaborative effort between artists to create projects that transcended music on its own, from the group’s very beginnings. He reveled in combining light and music with the sense of space. From the glitchy, meandering paths that 1997s Bible of Dreams walked upon to 2004s melting pot of global, metal and electronic rock that is Labyrinth, it’s no surprise that Juno Reactor had such an important role in the musical composition and supervision of the Matrix franchise. Their music is unabashedly dystopian but with the extreme detail and precision that could only be indicative of the digital age, making it the perfectly chaotic enough for the Matrix universe. With their latest release, they show no sign of slowing their lightning-speed pace down.
When the opening track, “Return of the Pistolero,” first emerges, it pairs a beautiful vocal harmony with Greek or Indian guitars, perhaps suggesting Juno Reactor’s path down a more acoustic route. If listeners lean in, however, they can hear the various electronic textures peppered into the traditional melody, which eventually erupts into a steady but insistent electronic beat that leans more towards Ibiza than Greece. Once the guitar comes back, though, it is clear that Watkins intended to melt the traditions of the old world with the novelties of the new. A passionate female vocal sample reaches its climax over the heart-racing beats and synths behind it. As the synth beat picks up more and more, a Bowie-esque male vocal sample speaks away in the background. Standing tall for over 11 minutes, Watkins takes his time to unpack all of the secrets hidden inside “Return of the Pistolero,” no matter how fast-paced it may be. With so many tricks and turns, “Return of the Pistolero” sets a high standard for complexity for the rest of The Mutant Theatre.
Fans of Juno Reactor know that though the music is extraordinary on its own, Watkins and his collaborators bridge over into a different dimension when they create audiovisual experiences. The Mutant Theatre is only one part of the whole – the “soundtrack” of the larger-than-human-life shows that Juno Reactor has been putting on since 2017. With flashing neon lights, dancing robots and rolling waves of hazy smoke, The Mutant Theatre shows are the Cirque du Soleil of a future only Juno Reactor could lead. They still have more than a handful of shows left, but listeners and fans can get a sneak peek of what these shows are like through the music videos for “Let’s Turn On” and “Dakota.”
“Let’s Turn On” starts out in the dark, both visually and sonically. Besides a vocoded repetition of the track’s title, an ominous beeping and mysterious figures shrouded by the blackness of the unlit room, all there is to feel is a sense of suspense to what would emerge. As such, glitter, light and a pummeling beat burst out like fireworks. Juno Reactor shows off their amazing visuals with surreal humanoid creatures waving or wearing instruments of light alongside the bass of the beat and the ecstatically light melody that plays atop of it. The vocoder weighs everything downwards in pitch and in tempo while the cyclical nature of the song moves its listeners along peaks and valleys. Their work completely fills a four-dimensional space rather than simplistically piling up atop itself. Similarly, “Dakota” shows the ecstatic highs of its joyful trance and the peaceful moments of bliss in its beautiful operatic vocals. The video includes the human touches that “Let’s Turn On” lacked. From its graceful dancers to the content faces of the audience members, “Dakota” highlights just how electronic music can bring together all walks of life to share a moment of fantasy together.
Though the beginning and middle of Juno Reactor & the Mutant Theatre simulate a mind-blowing high through music and visuals alone, it also recognizes the need for a comedown to send its audience off, back into normal, day-to-day life. “Voyager 304” starts off slow with an increasingly addictive melody. Its punchy notes are joined with various electronic textures that serve as quick and scrumptious sound bites. After the catwalk-esque beat kicks in, a gentle acoustic string melody sweeps through to make room for more penetrating synths. By the end of the track, a transfixing siren song moans over clattering seashells and oceanic breezes, transporting Juno Reactor’s sensory-overloaded listeners to a rehabilitative place. The final track, “Tannhauser Gate,” is even slower. It opens with an atmospheric hum and a metallic ring echoing through the quietness. This ring warps with bass until it disappears as fast as it came. Squealing strings are paired with sweeping strings, creating a beautiful acoustic contrast against the backdrop of electronic noise. Seasoned with glistening chimes and airy reeds, “Tannhauser Gate” cycles through itself almost like a drone until every aspect of the song slowly fades into nothingness, one by one.
Each and every breakdown on these final two tracks are incredibly smooth. Their paces are indulgently slow, soothing whatever mental (and in the case of The Mutant Theatre’s live attendees, physical) bruises and scrapes that must result from something as intense as the tracks that preceded them. The Mutant Theatre is nothing but a therapeutic experience. Not only do its listeners, viewers and attendees get to release all their pent-up energy in a cathartic dystopian world filled with wonderful edges and beams of light, they also get to be brought back down to Earth before Juno Reactor departs once more. Hallucinogenic and psychedelic without any need for drugs, The Mutant Theatre welcomes all into the futuristic world they have been creating for years.