36 – Fade To Grey (A Strangely Isolated Place, 2019)

I caught a Mark Kermode review recently for Alita: Battle Angel (I have not personally seen the film); in his outline he said that it was “set in a dystopian future”, adding “is there any other kind?”. It was almost a throwaway comment but it suddenly struck me that very few perceptions in Science Fiction recently are like the utopian visions of Star Trek visionary Gene Roddenberry, for example. No, we seem to have regressed back to Blade Runner or Deus Ex or any number of other darkling visions of the future, the world a decrepit and miserable place for its over-populous inhabitants.

This bleak outlook is insidious, a slow trajectory of despondency established and cultivated over time as we increasingly despair at what the future seems to yield. Slowly the dream of a bright future seems to crack and wane; one only needs to look back at 36’s own work in 2014’sĀ Sun RidersĀ to see the migration from aspirational space-bound imagery and hopes to this, a visage of spiralling urban misery.

Take the lonely piano in the Ray Bradbury-esque titled “Apartment 451”, sad strokes cycling in amidst the neon glow of the synth behind it. It feels sickly somehow in the sweeping Vangelis crooning, the substitutions of lights and automata making for a poor imitation of the outside world they’ve left behind. Something of that separation comes through in “Night Rain” as water fills the air. Only a pane of glass shields us from its wetness, but from within the confines of some apartment complex in some nameless city it almost may as well be on the Moon, stagnant drones hanging heavy in the mix, alien sounds bending eerily out as strange as the weather.

These changes to the way of life are instilled and spelled out in opening “DNI”, a slow and climactic noir crescendo of quietly insistent and repetitious structure. It’s cold and unsympathetic, bearing its digital overprint on the idiosyncratic piano now quickly becoming “obsolete” in much the same way that social media has ingrained text rather than speech into our fabric, unwriting the intimacy of connection with the sterility of instant messaging.

Somewhere here we are beginning to lose a sense of self and perhaps something more, something non-qualitative. Humans weren’t designed for this digital world, not really. We crave space and light and movement, and as we interface with these endless devices we’re peddled we begin to leave something behind. As such “Soul Boundary” floats oddly, at first a lightly buzzing mass like a whirring processor or seething modem, before submerging into an ambivalent drone sea. Childlike, innocent voices are lost in the distance, naivety and simplicity borne away through ones and zeroes, piano spelling out the obituary of youth, perhaps even morality.

It paves the way for the title track to close across 10 luxurious minutes, a depressingly beautiful piece of aesthetic sound that paints this rapidly approaching future in an all too cinematic light. The first half burns in giant synth crescendo, an erosion of the senses and an allaying (smothering) of well-placed fears. The second half sees it crack and tumble in classic 36 arpeggiation, drones rushing to fill the space as the synth sustains hammer and twirl exuberantly in some last ditch run toward the light. Is this some bold breakout of hope in humanity, or just reservation breaking under pressure and succumbing to the allure of the digital circus? I can’t quite decide.

Ultimately it poses a valid question: are we just going to sit back and let this happen, this slow careening into a tech-apocalypse? Or are we going to brave that night rain, leave our TV walls and buzzing phones and be a part of the future rather than merely passengers?