There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
There is something strangely familiar and comforting about Technophobia’s debut album Flicker Out—especially if you’ve ever gone long stretches wearing only black or stayed up late watching John Carpenter films just for the soundtracks.
As Technophobia, Katie and Stephen Petix craft darkwave dirges full of icy arpeggios and pneumatic death marches, their analog synthesizers and drum machines battling as Katie unleashes operatic vocals, incanting gothic poetry. The duo’s music draws from the tried-and-true tropes of synthpop and industrial, connecting the dots between early Ministry and Pretty Hate Machine–era Nine Inch Nails to contemporaries like Cold Cave and Light Asylum.
Like its industrial forebears, the D.C. duo punctuates layers of synthesized, vocalized melodies and rhythms with dusty vocal samples. On Flicker Out, it borrows some dialogue from Logan’s Run and a clip of an ’80s newscaster recounting a “specter of violence,” but the most prominent sample source is a 1964 BBC adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit starring Harold Pinter. Sartre’s existential masterpiece provides the perfect fodder for the album, where dialogue like “I’m a dead twig, ready for the burning,” “You can’t throttle thoughts with hands,” and—most famously—“Hell is other people” sets the stage for dark-hued songs about about loss, isolation, and shame.
While the album’s lush electronics err on the side of nostalgia, it rises beyond pure homage—due in part to Katie’s powerful vocals. At times, her voice sounds somewhere between Siouxsie Sioux and Grace Slick, especially on “The Principle,” which finds her alternating between eerie spoken word and more full-throated singing.
And the duo also has a knack for crafting smart pop songs, mostly by remembering that the original purveyors of these sounds were bringing doom and gloom to dance floors, not funerals. That’s especially evident on “Negative Space,” a single with a drum-machine beat that sounds like it’s straight out of the ’80s (think Skinny Puppy’s “Dig It” or Nine Inch Nails’ “Down In It”) but with a melody that’s timeless.
Near the end of Flicker Out, Technophobia turns its focus from the personal to the political. The lyrics of “Factory 1981” (“Let’s take the street/ Let’s break the stones/ Believe in pain/ Our time is now/ Your time to scream/ We are your shame”) calls for a revolution, and the album closes with a cover of The Cure’s “One Hundred Years.” The latter is heavy with the paranoia and fear of a post-apocalyptic war (“The soldiers close in under a yellow moon/ All shadows and deliverance/ Under a black flag”). Unfortunately, in making the nearly-seven-minute song its own, Technophobia excised some of the most poignant—and chilling—lyrics: “Stroking your hair as the patriots are shot/ Fighting for freedom on television/ Sharing the world with slaughtered pigs.”
Maybe that line was too real for an album that mostly sticks to symbolism and metaphor, particularly Technophobia’s recurrent theme of stone walls being torn asunder. Along with the existentialism of the Sartre dialogue, there is—perhaps unsurprisingly—a thread of nihilism throughout.
But even as Katie sings “Nothing/ No one/ Never is your name” on “The Principle,” there is a silver lining to the dark clouds of Flicker Out. The album is being released by non-profit label Working Order Records, which Stephen runs with friends Katherine Taylor and Kristy Lupejkis, and 100 percent of the proceeds from Flicker Out will be donated to Life Pieces To Masterpieces, a D.C. nonprofit that “uses artistic expression to develop character and leadership, unlock potential, and prepare African American boys and young men to transform their lives and community.” In that way, Technophobia offers a more grown-up take on the dark music of days past: Katie and Stephen Petix don’t just want to tear this world down—they want to build up a better one.