It’s been one helluva year for Paperhaus’ Alex Tebeleff. “My friends were leaving town around the time of the election. ‘I’m not putting up with this shit!’ they were saying. That whole vibe was happening,” he says. “Then my house was on 4Chan, and I was getting threats from neo-Nazis, so it was a pretty intense period.” But through his solo musical project Blacklodge, and collaboration with vocalist Margaret Gilmore (who performs as em.g), he’s learning how to process his angst and lift himself—via synthesized sounds—out of an emotional abyss.
Three releases and 12 months into their musical collaborative life as Blacklodge and em.g, Tebeleff and Gilmore are weary from their sonic explorations. But they remain focused and undeterred in their desire to excel at the art of moody sonic explorations. On the duo’s latest Blight Records EP, Will You Be Reduced, these sounds feel like the soundtrack of what has evolved into hard-learned survival.
“The tools have changed insofar as my knowledge of and access to modular synthesizer technology,” Tebeleff notes about his year-long growth in sonic exploration. But, as he explains, during the duration of the project, the context of the concept evolved. “Silencio was made right after Trump was elected, and Assassin’s Suite was made at the peak of my anger [thus far] with the current presidential administration. As far as Will You Be Reduced, it is less emotionally driven by politics, and more genuinely thinking philosophically about death and mortality.”
Gilmore also notes, “As we were making this, I was experiencing death more closely than I have previously, and contemplating what happens to the human form and human relationships as human beings decay.” Both artists point to an intriguing source, the 14th century Tibetan Book of the Dead, as a significant source of reassurance regarding physical crisis and intellectual journey.
“Exhalation,” the first track on Will You Be Reduced, has the feeling of a treatise, with interplay between aural and cognitive dissonance. Have you ever wondered what it might sound like trying to achieve self-empowerment while the alt-right yells “FAKE NEWS” into your left ear and CNN’s Don Lemon plain-speaks brutal honesty into your right? That’s kind of what’s happening on “Exhalation.” The song is a massive meditation on who we become when we are stunned by the realization that where we are metaphysically is the most perilous state of still-living existence many of us could ever imagine. In some existential way, the track, at merely three-and-a-half minutes—feels essential. If it continued a second more, it’d veer off course into the sound of a free-falling demise.
Blacklodge and em.g have released intentionally challenging music in the past year that aims to answer hard questions at a dangerous time. “So much of this music is all about feeling disenfranchised from yourself, your rights, and your life,” Gilmore says. “So, the meaning of Will You Be Reduced can, in fact, be tied to, ‘What happens if you’re not heard as a person? What happens to you physically, what happens to you politically, what happens to you on a molecular level?’”
To that point, “Reduction” features indie-electro bass stabs cutting through a calm ambiance that hearkens to turn-of-the-century sad boys The Postal Service. But then, the track takes an ominous turn as its devoured by growling grooves that rip at the vibe, and it morphs into a barren, dark techno soundscape.
“Unknown” completes the suite that is Will You Be Reduced. “Melodic themes are great for the listener, but as far as the fact that we don’t compose anything per se, the overall themes are so strong that they are bigger than any melody,” Gilmore opines. Howls, distorted instrumentation, and the shifting pitch of the bassline conjure images of souls trapped in limbo. It’s an evocative meditation that refuses to provide answers but has a definite end.
This isn’t the end of Tebeleff and Gilmore’s journey. Though Tebeleff still has Paperhaus and Gilmore is traveling the city and hard at work with her day job in the DC Public Library, he says there’s still more to come. “The best stuff Maggie and I have done [hasn’t] been released yet,” he says. “We’re musicians who are growing comfortable with the material that we’re making. There’s so much more to come. Fifteen hours right now, at least. Hell, we might do an hour-long piece and put that shit on SoundCloud.”
As far as Gilmore is concerned, her hopes are more reflective and self-empowering. “Song is an easy way to contemplate life long after a human has expired,” she says. “So many billions of people have used songs as a needed expression of healing from the power of the music itself, so this project overall is a way to lift our spirits.”
Blacklodge + em.g. perform Sunday at Black Cat with Dove Lady and Spooky Cool. 7:30 p.m. $10.