North American Nihilists in London

In many ears it must sound like a strange phrase, most likely, but it actually refers to something: London as an American city (for many hundreds of thousands of Americans live there, augmented by the Canadian cohorts) would not be complete without a nihilist underground, and some of the expatriate musicians there have been willing to leap into this void. They’re a fixture on at least one local scene, evidently, which includes a bar, The Macbeth, a recurring dance night, “Never Come Back,” a performance venue, The George Tavern, and a party or two, along with a record label, Misanthropop; and some of them have even gone on tour abroad. (Central Europe – Berlin, Vienna, Budapest – was recently honored with a visit.)

It is true, however, that nihilism encompasses multitudes and any number of shadings. A softer tinge, relatively speaking, is to be met with in the music created by Jack Duckworth, a Canadian from Vancouver who’s lived and worked in London for more than a decade as an artist, graphic and web designer, and musician and composer; on the musical side he’s been involved in numerous projects over this course of time, and has recently been engaged in two: Savage Furs and Soft Riot, the former a band and the latter it seems a one-man enterprise.

Given Duckworth’s involvement in art and design, the videos on Soft Riot’s Youtube channel are as much visual statements as they are sonorous ones – in them the droning images and the blurry sounds, so to speak, go hand in hand. At times dark and on occasion even slightly bucolic, they embody one mode of self-distanciation from . . . from what, exactly? It isn’t so easy to say, but then, it amounts nearly to a category mistake to expect an answer to that question, doesn’t it.

It would also be something of a mistake to expect long playlists in the case of these musicians – but on Soft Riot’s Soundcloud page there are some additional tracks and even the whole of the album Hyperbolic Masses.

“Tragic Magic.”

“Another Drone in Your Head.”

“The Holy Intruder.”

Hyperbolic Masses (full album).

Duckworth is at work more or less concurrently on a second musical project, the band Savage Furs, in which he is joined by Del Jae (vocals, synthesizers) and Chris Flatline (synthesizers) – or was joined, it’s not quite clear from its Facebook page whether or to what extent the band might be on hiatus or disbanded. Yet that hardly matters when one’s following the band’s live performance of its song “Sick Lamborghini” (disregarding the rough quality of the visual and audio recording), included in the playlist and which complements nicely the much snappier studio arrangement of “Thrones of Young Ice.”

On Savage Furs’ Soundcloud page there is the studio version of the first song as well.

“Sick Lamborghini.”

Alongside Duckworth’s two projects, and having accompanied Soft Riot on its Central European trip, is “a dark electronic three piece from London” – as it’s described on its Facebook page – called Női Kabát (a phrase which, evidently, means a “woman’s jacket” in Hungarian). The band itself may be mysterious – and it’s doubtful that it too is composed of nihilists from North America – but its sound is compelling (with some witty aural touches): while Savage Furs may take some cues from a band like Duran Duran, with Női Kabát the major influence is New Order.

All of the aforementioned musical ventures range from dark to darker, but though nihilist experience too has its varieties, to call these North Americans “nihilist” would be something of a stretch, were it not that in these circles there is another performer who is openly, avowedly one – the expatriate from Kansas, Robert M. Fenner, who performs from time to time under his own name but more often under the moniker Nurvuss (a reduction of the word nervous), assisted or not by a couple of other bandmates.

Of this performance permutation his Facebook page notes simply: “Sometimes autobiographical. Sometimes not. Always NURVUSS. What you take away from it is up to you.”

A cheeky statement – but it’s shock that he deals in. It may be hard now to conceive how shocking the first appearances of the Sex Pistols must have been, back in 1976 and 1977, but Nurvuss’ act gives a pretty good idea of what it was like. And anyone who is not shocked by it, at least a little, is probably too inured to get what Fenner is up to.

Admittedly, Nurvuss does have his humorous side, as a number of tracks on his Bandcamp and Soundcloud pages reveal.

“Grandma” (First Movement).

“Grapefruit Passion.”

“SPK W/ U L8R.”

“Shady Man at the Corsan Bar.”

But these are like jeux d’esprit or exercises in wit, whereas his song “American Made” is shocking, there’s no denying it. (Last week I noted of some of the videos in the “Downtown New York” playlist that they were actually rather mild. The same cannot be said of this one. And out of squeamishness I have not included the song “Lobomotomobile,” which has a particular eerie pertinence in the brave new world of official health services entrusted blindly to the administration of far-away actuaries and utilitarians.) Be advised: it’s Rimbaud raw and Henry Miller heavy (Fenner has been inspired by both of them, it seems), not to mention blasphemous – and very hostile to all politicians.

And yet even in this heart of Fenner’s nihilism, even when he hisses the loudest, there’s something like a wistful allusion to an earlier time. It’s barely present to be heard, of course, but when he gets around to blurting out the words that are, on a first hearing, the most offensive thing of all in his song, somehow it sounds as though it’s sung with something other than merely a snarl of loathing or self-loathing. Those three words are “the united snakes,” and as for the faint sound of his concern – will you hear it?