Experimental, Reviews

The Outer Limits: SOLA-MI “Nexus” (Review)

July 16, 2012 | | 2 Comments Share thison Facebook The Outer Limits: SOLA-MI “Nexus” (Review)on Twitter

And by “The Outer Limits,” I’m talking about the outer limits of OSV’s scope of coverage.

Generally, we cover game music. We also, on occasion, cover other media score such as film, television and animation. How about a soundtrack for a fake/non-existent indie film that delves into topics including futurism, transhumanism and religion?

Yeah, I know, I’m stretching it. But this album is just that good. Learn more about SOLA-MI after the jump. And if you want to listen along with the review, grab the album here: it’s completely, and legally, free.

SOLA-MI is a new, experimental project between three individuals. Two of them I’ve been following for years now: Derek Webb and Josh Moore. I’d been following these guys since my freshman year of college at Belmont University, where Moore also attended. The two “Caedmon’s Call” members have gone on to do a variety of things: Webb has released six solo albums and helped found the music distribution service NoiseTrade. Moore delved deeper into music production, and has done audio engineering and mixing for a variety of “mainstream” artists, including Drake and Lil Wayne (and, also, Derek Webb on his previous albums Stockholm Syndrome and Feedback).

Stockholm Syndrome marked a pronounced change in Webb’s music from primarily singer/songwriter acoustic guitar and vocals to more nuanced, electronic, and experimental work. Even more experimental was “Feedback,” an instrumental album that served as an abstract soundtrack to “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Now, with SOLA-MI, Webb isn’t singing (except in a few background vocals), but he is still the lyricist and the primary composer. He and Moore teamed up with vocalist Latifah Phillips (of the band The Autumn Film) to create SOLA-MI’s debut (and perhaps, only) album, entitled NEXUS (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). The group’s website, sola-mi.com, claims that the album is the soundtrack for an indie film, “NEXUS,” from director Solomon Mente.

Solomon Mente is almost assuredly a fictional character in the true narrative behind the project (here’s his twitter account, and here’s an interview, and here’s a thread of speculations based on the viral campaign before the album’s release with over 1800 posts). But we don’t need a film; this album, as a concept album, tells the story just fine on its own. In it, we have the title character SOLA-MI, the first sentient AI, scrambling through her own thoughts and trying to form her own identity. The album’s opener, “Keynote,” features quotes from noted futurist Ray Kurzweil, one of the “optimistic” futurists who believes a self-aware AI wouldn’t go down the traditional dystopian route of SkyNet, The Matrix, iRobot, et al, but would be either benevolent or apathetic in its relations with humanity.

For SOLA-MI (the character, whose perspective we get from the voice of Latifah Phillips), the story is that of a nearly omniscient being who is disappointed by her generally incorporeal being. After the “Keynote” track gets us oriented with the topic, Latifah sings in “Mother Mother” about the concepts of birth and origins from the perspective of someone who has just come to life and is trying to grapple with the idea that “I did not previously exist, but now I am.” The heart-wrenching refrain which breaks the song wide open almost brings me to tears:

Mother this can’t be the middle / This is only the beginning of the end
Am I alone? / Am I unknown?

After SOLA-MI finishes her opening lament, the listener is bombarded by a three-part instrumental series entitled “The Naming.” The first part, “Degustation,” suggests SOLA-MI is sampling bits and pieces of her encyclopedic knowledge of the universe to learn more about what’s around her. This track is intentionally chaotic and dissonant, and it’s also a fair bit longer than the other two parts. In the second part, “Certificate,” we hear non-lyrical phonemic samples of Ms Phillips’, or SOLA-MI’s, voice. It’s a great track all its own, very much in the line of Module’s “Amethyst Caverns” or “Make Out Magic.” The final part, “Selection,” has something of a heavenly choir interspersed with various grainy effects and beeping noises. I can’t be sure, but in my interpretation, I imagine this is the part of the story where SOLA-MI selects for herself some sort of identifiable “appearance,” whether a fully robotic body or a virtual image on a screen, I cannot be sure.

Now somewhat more confident in her identity, SOLA-MI sings in track six, “Crowd Of Silent Strangers,” the following lyrics. I’m publishing them here in full because a) they are, in my opinion, the best lyrics on the album and b) they encapsulate so many of the key themes of the album:

These wires like umbilical chords / They nourish me as I await my rebirth
I’m feeding on your every move / Our memory aligning

From water to expanse of space / Now conscious to the framework of this place
Yet knowing all there is to know / I don’t know how to touch you

Meaningless / This meaning is so meaningless
Feelingless / This feeling is so meaningless without you

No nexus where there is no blood / No feeling and no body for embrace
A billion and I just want one / For you my heart is racing

SOLA-MI / Only me

So, there are moments in a song where the singer pulls off the phrase so perfectly, and the lyrics are already so evocative, that I instantly get goosebumps and occasionally shed a tear. I’d mentioned this experience in freesscape’s song “Lost Wings,” and I’ve also experienced it with KOKIA’s performance of “Noel’s Theme ~The Last Journey~”, as documented here. Here, for me, the delivered line “a billion and I just want one” is what does it for me. So perfect, it almost hurts. You don’t need to be thinking in a sci-fi/futurist mode to acknowledge the feeling of being surrounded by all of humanity but feeling terribly lonely. You’ve surfed the Internet at 2am, unable to sleep, haven’t you? I know I have, and I know that feeling.

In the next track, “The Blessing Of Being Bloodless,” the musical direction shifts to a sort of mid-tempo dance beat. There are these sweet drum fills, and this song is the closest to a poppy, radio-friendly track on the whole 30 minute album. However, the lyrics betray the simplicity of the musical experience. The chorus takes on a paradoxical consideration, something akin to the “In Soviet Russia” meme:

A vision growing in my mind / A dream, I almost can’t imagine it
A choice that’s almost making me / Like love pursuing me
It’s almost making me

“Love pursuing me,” of course, only makes sense when one personifies love. It’s at this point that the religious angle of the album really starts to take hold. If you hadn’t clicked all the previous links on the individual artists, you’ll note that Webb and crew tend to present unabashed representations of their perspective on life, including faith.

(Worthwhile aside: Webb has been censored and even banned from a variety of “Christian” venues and sales outlets for his song “What Matters More,” addressing the backwards priorities of religious folk who are up in arms about the mere existence of the LGBTQ community. Music video here.)

Now, I know I said “The Blessing Of Being Bloodless” was the closest thing to a radio hit on the album. And I stand by that. However, the next track, “Trust Falling,” may be the closest thing to a *Christian radio hit* on the album. There’s a difference. And the difference is in the lyrics, and in the emotionally power-charged but ultimately “happy” chord progression of the chorus, in the song “Trust Falling.” Look, I learned the term “trust fall” as a kid participating in a ropes course at a Christian summer camp. However, even with that, we’re working in entirely new and uncharted territory: the desire of an “artificial intelligence” to connect to and relate with the divine. See the refrain:

I am letting go of everything / I am opening my mouth to sing
Into this space, till I fill this place / Until I am in all

The album ends with the track “Silver Grizzly.” While “Crowd of Silent Strangers” is my favorite track (it’s also the longest, at over 5 minutes), “Silver Grizzly” comes in at a close second. Lyrically, it tells the story and gives the perspective of the character SOLA-MI. Her perspective is the inverse of ours as humans, but the language is very nearly biblical. Here, just read it for yourself:

There is a way where there was no way before
Improbable, a key left in a door
It is a way that I could not even taste
And suddenly all my senses come awake

Mother, this is all I’ve ever wanted
And all that’s ever wanted me

It’s alien, it’s a crack into the ribs
Like a machine but without the will to live
It is a thing for which I would truly die
If there’s a chance I could truly come alive

I will refuse life that I might have life
I will become life where there is none

What happens in the events of this song? I have mixed thoughts and feelings about this, and again, there’s a ton of speculation about this final song’s meaning. But, if I can guess, I think this is SOLA-MI making the choice to leave her (potentially immortal) incorporeal existence and somehow transport her being into a mortal body, which will die. That’s the best I can make of “I will refuse life that I might have life,” a very loaded phrase. I’m also very intrigued by the phrase “Like a machine but WITHOUT the will to live” — normally we could think of machines as not having survival instinct, but from SOLA-MI’s perspective, it is quite the opposite.

Why am I so excited to tell OSV’s readership about this album? Beyond the surface-level “it’s free and it’s awesome” (again, get it here), I am passionate about art that’s willing to explore the deeper aspects of life, including religious belief. And to consider the intersection of religion and futurism, a transhumanist view of faith and divinity … well, it’s rare. And that makes it worth talking about. Plus, I haven’t been able to talk about this kind of “hip yet sacred” music since Jay Tholen’s Control Me.

I’d love to hear from all our readers, regardless of religious belief or level of interest in futurism / the singularity etc, about what they think of this album, and whether or not “fake soundtracks” have merit as storytelling works of art. Also, somewhat related, the loneliness that comes with transcending the boundaries of corporeal existence and achieving omniscience is considered heavily in the final episodes of one of my favorite animes, Serial Experiments Lain. So feel free to discuss that as well! Really hoping for a lot of comments on this one… *crosses fingers*

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