Over the last year, America felt characterized more than ever by a barrage of death, tear gas, police violence and racism. From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore to Charleston, the country’s news cycle played out every day like a nightmarish parody of the ideals of freedom, equality, and access to justice. These dystopian themes didn’t escape the attention of Sleeper Cell, a collaborative project between Earthen Sea’s Jacob Long and Ital’s Daniel Martin-McCormick, and a series of discussions about a sense of anguish in America served as the undercurrent of creative impetus for their latest music collaboration.
While many of these themes simmer under the surface, it’s not the only reason that the Quality of Life EP surges with purpose from its opening note. The duo’s decade and a half relationship playing in bands together, and their intimate familiarity with each other’s work (McCormick released Earthen Sea’s woozily placid Mirage EP on his Lover’s Rock imprint last year) seems to have set the groundwork for some striking musical compatibility.
Opening track “Initiate” sets the tone, immediately tapping into what feels like a soundscape of charred earth, as McCormick’s barely audible whispers drift overtop Long’s windswept tones. The sense of underlying peacefulness that characterizes Earthen Sea productions is absent here, and McCormick’s mechanical touches ripple through the track, fault lines on an unstable surface.
“Suffocate” switches over into a more immediately recognizable techno framework, but it’s an interesting example of how music that’s made to put bodies in motion can still carry an inherent emotional heaviness. Just as a DJ Sprinkles track can evoke feelings of loneliness and loss while still making you move, “Suffocate” feels like a claustrophobic, scathing indictment of the murder of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer, with the alkaline gurgles underscoring the percussion recall an upset stomach, an unpalatable wrongness.
The title track begins as the most noise-oriented excursion on the record, with McCormick’s glitching sequencer tones clashing drastically with Long’s ambient thrums. The interplay between chaos and contentment feels like the kind of dynamic, shifting jam that was captured in a single take, perhaps deeply influenced by the dark winter afternoons and evenings that the two spent working on the project.
B2’s “Sleeper Cell” captures some of the intricate, melancholy shuffle that characterized Joey Anderson’s excellent After Forever LP, moving at a dreamlike pace that closing cut “Laugh Out Loud” intensifies. Reverberating like a lost Levon Vincent B-side, and equally as devoid of any kind of optimism, it’s a testament to Long & McCormick’s ability to find fertile middle ground between their individual production styles.
In a recent interview with Juno Plus, McCormick states that “as America sleepwalks through this ongoing nightmare”, there’s a level of subconscious processing and acknowledgment that becomes integrated into one’s worldview. We absorb the loss, tragedy and trauma that’s swirling around us, even if we’re not conscious of doing so, and Sleeper Cell’s debut manages to repackage the cultural PTSD of being American into a powerful series of musical movements that stay with you long after the record ends.
B1. Quality Of Life
B2. Sleeper Cell
B3. Laugh Out Loud