Rare is the album that makes me stand up and applaud the sheer audacity, the uncanny weirdness that I did not know the internet still had in it. School of the Americas “2 frame GIF of 9-11 240 FPS” is such an album.
The transformation of audio clips, beautiful and ugly alike, into this strange brew of pitch shifts, signal bursts, melodic fragments, and general sonic shrapnel embraces the signalwave subgenre of vaporwave. School of the Americas takes the idea further though, offering hardly any moments of calm. Quite jarring in certain tracks, there is this unease, the unknowing aspect of what comes next, that sets their sound apart from other charting similar geographies. Nor are they content with simply adhering to one style – some of the songs verge on ambient, others switch the dial to almost pure noise. Whatever the approach, one thing remains crystal clear – these are the cryptic, eerie transmissions going on now, on ignored AM radio station broadcasts and barely recognizable television stations. It is the sound of globalization done with an eerie dexterity, as all the different aspects dart about. The intoxicating aspect comes through clearly, in the album art to the associated photography that is intertwined within the project.
Everything within the project is a puzzle. One gets the sense of a breadcrumb trail, where the musician/artist wants the listener to play along. Fair enough, I’m game and I’m willing to do it. The sheer number of reference points, the oddity of the samples, and the plethora of cultures and items sold all play an essential role in getting intoxicated by the deluge of information. School of the Americas loves this information overload, itself a byproduct of what we are usually able to filter out of our lives on a day-to-day basis. When our names are shouted in a noisy crowded space, we can somehow filter out the excess to get to the information we are searching for (i.e. a person looking for us). Rather than do that, School of the Americas refuses to filter letting it all wash over the listener. It’s chaotic, messy, weird, occasionally melodic, and strangely appealing.
The tradition that School of the Americas follows is a relatively small one, still being fully established. Obvious roots in vaporwave, signalwave recalls ░▒▓新しいデラックスライフ▓▒░’s debut album “▣世界から解放され▣”. Like that album, this one avoids outright obvious progressions for something much more disjointed. Glitched-up effects, smacking those pitches up (and down), the whole thing becomes hard to fully comprehend. That’s a deliberate aesthetic choice. Shocking to think that such an album is over eleven years old, but Internet Club’s most esoteric side-project continues to influence people so many years later. It is perhaps the closest to explaining a little of what School of the Americas goes for, as it has similar art piece aspects with its execution, artwork, and messaging.
Sudden, jarring interruptions to the groove touch upon Nmesh’s fondness for the broadcast signal intrusion as shown on their “Dream Sequins®” album. The rhythms on Nmesh’s album are far more straightforward than what School of the Americas is doing, but the result is the same. Much heavier on the looping of non-musical elements, School of the Americas does have moments where they manage to create shockingly catchy songs out of literal sonic trash. School of the Americas’ pieces also have an almost punk-ethos, as reflected in the name of the project as well as the album artwork and the names of multiple tracks. Nmesh has a critique of consumer culture, but School of the Americas takes things much, much further almost to the point of discomfort. Much like Nmesh, the sequencing of the album feels surprisingly well thought-out given the hectic pace of much of the album.
To go way back to the very first origins of signalwave and vaporwave in general there’s a clear fondness for Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. I can virtually hear some of the ridiculousness of the “demerol” track’s influence reverberating through these hallowed halls. Cut-up snippets, the chopped and screwed style done to advertisements, this thing baffled listeners when it came out. Daniel Lopatin then was a much different person, a general weirdo who’d open for Fuck Buttons and other such noise artists. Now he does movie soundtracks. Things change. Anyway, a lot of the similar weird late-night vibe sessions that School of the Americas explores feel akin to the spirit of that recording, in that there is little made in the way of comfort. Very, very far from easy listening, the snippets have a confrontational stance, forcing the listener to engage with the material, regardless of whatever language is used.
Aesthetics matter in such a project, and School of the Americas proves more than capable of coming up with artwork that seems to indicate the general tenor of the tracks. On their Soundcloud, the first few tracks have photographs taken at night. “TCU”, uploaded earlier this year, has a breathing in and out aspect. Instruments are warped beyond belief, with the photography depicting an empty anonymous industrial landscape. Rocks in place, fence in place, lights extending their reach into the darkness, it is all there, and shows how almost immediately School of the Americas had adhered strongly to their mysterious aura.
“11’s are all instrumental” offers a clearer view of where School of Americas comes from, in a literal sense. The picture depicts 4055 Linden Street in Oakland, California, home to Industrial Safety Supply Corporation. Google Street View confirms this is the right place, and the warning sign with its 510-area code confirms it. Unlike a lot of their work, this track is an uneasy series of drones. The sheer uncomfortable quality without words is a nice touch. While listening to it, I am reminded of the Triadex Muse synthesizer, which has been perhaps most recently used by Florian Hecker in their “Triadex Muse Treks” album for Neuer Berliner Kunstverein. Whereas I am certain this synthesizer was not used in the production (School of the Americas proudly states everything is done in audacity) it is interesting to have at least some reference point for this track to avoid completely getting lost. It is curious as to whether this location was chosen deliberately, as the location is a manufacturer of PPE, or completely random, adding to the mystique of what this piece’s actual intention is.
Lens flare gives the artwork for the “wish upon a tree instrumental” a haunted quality. The chopped-and-screw style is strong on this one. The track feels like the blues but in a very tape-damaged way. For all the oddity, this is one of their more straightforward pieces. Rhythms can be deciphered, even melodies can too. With the looping effect, they give it an anchor of sorts that allows the listener to at least begin to understand what is going on around them.
Vocals, however damaged, first appear on “butts.” The photo which simply says “beautiful” seems to be a strange in-joke, that I am sure makes some sort of sense. Glitched-up effects give the song’s finale an Oval-like effect, with sudden starts and stops a strange rave quality. For the final stretch, it returns to the distended once more, ending things on that note.
“benzene instrumental” appears devoted to the discovery of Michael Faraday in 1825. The compound is used in the production of polystyrene, once more offering a nod to industrial production (the first one from their picture of the Industrial Safety Supply Corporation). It is uncertain if this is a theme or a mere coincidence. School of the Americas offers no answers to this question, as they refuse to answer much of anything with their eerie music. One thing of note is the song has a jazzy cadence, similar in style to the chop-ups of Ahnnu, all the way down to the leftfield rhythm employed. Photography keeps things to the back of a business van, again suggesting some reference to commercial usage/industrial production.
Onkyokei elements dart into the proceedings with “losing color vision instrumental.” A genre devoted to the reverberation of sound, the track is extremely dark and outright creepy. The artwork turns the verse of the Stone Temple Pilots “I got a picture of a photograph” from “Big Bang Baby” completely around. School of the Americas takes a photograph of a picture, and the picture has a haunted aspect, with tree branches and the colors giving off a distinctly “don’t take the brown acid” quality, as it feels unusually nightmarish with the color palette.
Impossible to decipher if “interlude” is neither instrumental nor fully vocal. Even the artwork does not help a desolate, fenced-in space ambiguous throughout the American West. It looks like Northern California, but that’s merely a guess. Somehow even by the project’s uncertain standards, this track remains unknowable.
A lounge lizard gone acidic “flan” serves as a more straightforward approach to their art. The picture was taken in an anonymous room with no identifying information. Hypnotic looping incorporates the noir aspects of Ekkehard Ehlers’s work in Autopoieses. Much like that work, there is a twilight theme alongside a slow steady shuffle of sounds. Even the percussion here is crystal clear, and it is perhaps one of the more immediately accessible of their tracks.
The late-night jazz aspect continues with the “soymilk instrumental.” Sounds go backward and forwards, occasionally bumping into each other. Here some of the sudden bursts that would be incorporated in their album first emerge, as the atmosphere has an uncertainty. Aspects of noise rear their ugly and lovely heads in unequal doses. On the periphery of the track, there are almost discernible songs, but just barely. The photograph here is of a completely generic building which offers no clues regarding its location.
Like an AI image generator got sick and vomited, “Coming To” features a picture that makes no sense and probably does not exist in this astral plane. A girl looking at a statue of what might be herself years later? It feels very much like “12 Monkeys” and the song is no easier. Under a half-minute long, there are no features that are real, with the piece living a fully nebulous existence.
“gasoline fantasy” gives off Chuck Person vibes to the extreme. The pitch shifts are skillfully done. Moments of it resemble Western country tracks completely and utterly tortured. I approve. One of my favorite albums of the past several years “1000 Beers” utilizes a similar tactic. Visuals go to a waiting room after regular business hours aspect. For the short duration, the oversaturated sound is gorgeous and oddly habit-forming.
Completely and utterly backward “asphixia instrumental” displays a common Bay Scene – of those teeny tiny homes that cost a fortune and have connected garages that were a thing in the mid-seventies. Even the car reeks of the mid-seventies. Good attention to the high-end, with the shrill shrieks of noise screaming through.
A lot of meaning is placed into the title of “adrenachrome.” The rich history of the term extends back literal decades. It was studied in the midcentury (again, another mid-century connection) and was a part of Aldous Huxley’s completely maddening “The Doors of Perception.” With “A Clockwork Orange” Anthony Burgess gives it a shout-out as lacing their drug-laced milk. Hunter S. Thompson specifies its usage (though admitting it was a fictionalization) in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. More recently, it has become the basis for right-wing Q-anon conspiracy theories. Yes, the usage is quite loaded. Warped beyond belief, it is hard to tell which direction the track is even heading, as there is something peculiar about its stance. A harsh chain link fence is the only artwork of an unknown parking lot. Why a parking lot needs a chain link fence is unclear but perhaps it is to ensure that the roaming herds of cars don’t wander too far afield from their perfect pavement.
These tracks served as starting points for what School of the Americas was going to do with their debut album “2 frame GIF of 9/11 240.” Immediately noticeable is the extremely striking album artwork. Photoshopped imagery of the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse is immediately apparent. With the most iconic image of the abuse transformed into a cross, it is very, very direct, and confrontational. Sabrina Harman’s smiling, thumbs-up face, is still no less chilling even almost two decades after the fact. School of the Americas, with their name and the name of the album, conjures up imagery of a hegemonic power. Commentary on the event is limited to the album artwork, as the music contained within has a completely different tenor.
“one machine (shit test)” starts the album. The clipped nature of the sample offers new meaning to the song, giving off strong Tape Beatles references. From the initial calm they have no problem throwing the listener into the deep end of things, with the sample overload veering strongly off course into almost pure noise, but just barely pulling back before it abruptly ends.
More of the album’s objectives become abundantly clear with “𝗕𝗨𝗬 𝗞𝗜𝗟𝗟 𝗗𝗜𝗘 𝗕𝗘 𝗬𝗢𝗨 𝗚𝗢”. With this track, they show how advertisements across the entire world have that same sort of scrubbed clean aesthetic. The morphing of syllables allows the slogan a wholly different meaning. Switching the pitches around allows for the song to become caustic, almost outright insane.
An elegance radiates throughout “boltzman brain summoning séance.” Itself named after Boltzmann’s brain thought experiment, it is a surprisingly catchy work. The basic premise of the thought experiment is that a brain can be formed in a void, complete with a memory of having existed, rather than the way it supposedly was created. It is an unusual premise and brings into being the idea of what might constitute music. Our basic understanding is that it must be melodic, pretty, evolving the way we understand it. Yet, the way we experience sound and music itself is through all these random jingles, and the countless number of advertisements we unwillingly consume daily. The artwork for this track embraces the trippy
Collage in nature things become completely unhinged on “𝗖𝗹𝗼𝘀𝗲-𝗨𝗽 𝗙𝗼𝗼𝘁𝗮𝗴𝗲 𝗦𝗵𝗼𝘄𝘀 𝗠𝗼𝘀𝗾𝘂𝗶𝘁𝗼𝘀 𝗗𝗿𝗮𝗶𝗻 𝗛𝘂𝗺𝗮𝗻 𝗕𝗹𝗼𝗼𝗱 𝗨𝗻𝘁𝗶𝗹 𝗧𝗵𝗲𝘆 𝗕𝘂𝗿𝘀𝘁!”. One of the few tracks that embraces a heavier aspect of the sound, going with some rather gorgeous bass frequencies, the piece has a cartoonish slapstick quality. Photography associated with the piece makes sure to show the changing generations, with a little reference to the mosquito for good measure. Thankfully, there is no music video to depict what goes on in the track’s title.
The imagery on “You are your ID!” features blackened-out personal identifying information on a California state driver’s license. Edits on the image are crude, much like the way that the samples are sped up and slowed down. Almost resembling music, the vocals extend out into the infinite, conveying no discernible information. Much like the image, it is like School of the Americas has refused to offer any identifying information to let the listener figure out the song’s origins.
“𝗣𝗢𝗥𝗦𝗖𝗛𝗘 𝗖𝗔𝗬𝗘𝗡𝗡𝗘” lets consumerism run rampant. The artwork includes a screenshot from Indosiar, Indonesia’s over-the-air television network. With a title that touches upon the grandeur of the almighty Porsche Cayenne, it is a song of excess. One of the noisier and longer tracks, it is a Rubik’s Cube of associated patterns. To put them together feels outright impossible, as School of the Americas intended.
The inclusion of the emoji makes “MILITARY 😂 (interlude)” feel slightly threatening. By far the loudest of the pieces, the song embraces pure noise. Aspects of the sound merge into outright harsh wall noise. Repetition has a mocking tone. One of the other ways to read the emoji is bitter sarcasm as if the military would ever be an interlude instead of a literal way of life.
A virtual attack occurs with “𝗗𝘆𝗟𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝗙𝗹𝘂𝗼𝗿”. Here layer upon layer upon layer is brought to the fray as the song threatens outright collapse. Whatever is being done to the many samples it is not pretty. It has the experience of multiple electronic devices on at once, all trying to get a word edgewise and becoming incomprehensible in the process. The collage extends to the art, where a carefree shrug gets twisted over an open, empty pool.
Whole worlds come into the fray with “TEAM WORLDWIDE” jams with multiple genres together singing as one. Beats has a vibrancy, working on an emotional level, and less on an actual time-keeping mission. Usage of different forms of fidelity, going from high to low, allows a cross-section view of how we treat different music and different messages. Hair clips hold a fire to the face for the image’s collage.
To throw me a much-needed bone, the School of the Americas offers a slight amount of guidance. With “ill health & dies young” the song is made entirely from about 15 seconds of an Indian commercial break. Somehow there manages to be a shockingly large amount of emotional development. One might see the whole thing as manipulation, and honestly, advertising is manipulation anyway. Even the image of a man in front of an arid landscape getting watered has that same sense of manipulation – as if progress is being made as the land is forced to do more than it was naturally intended to.
Zoviet France’s post-industrial tribal drones influence “briars (𝙃𝙊𝙏).” There is something of a new form of industrial trance that comes through within the song. By giving the piece an anchoring groove, the song feels endlessly expansive. Associated random noises do feel in keeping with the movement forward of the work, allowing it this sense of discovery. Usage of corrupted sounds within the songs adds to the sense of the otherworldly. Schools of the Americas use a picture of a young bride and groom together to completely the feeling.
Mandarin Chinese works at the forefront of “i forgot your face.” A single phrase of “thank you” is repeated, as if this is the end of some sort of game show thanking the contestants for making it. The image of a blank window with a shadowed tree coming through the blinds offers no further details. It is a cheery piece in its distinctive manner, with the looping feeling reassuring.
The whole album comes to a satisfyingly sweet close on the lullaby-like “ 𝗹𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝗶𝘀 𝗼𝗻.” For sheer kindness, there is at least one source for this work – an old Saudi commercial. I appreciate it. Gradually they peel back that initial analog sample to reveal a noisy interior. It takes the comforting and makes it increasingly harder and harder to listen to as if the song is drifting away into pure data corruption. The inclusion of a cloudy, late afternoon sky only adds to the effect of seemingly endlessness.
I am a bit overwhelmed by all the feelings this sparked. There is a restlessness that comes through loud and clear over the entire album’s duration. Aspects of this world within our world have a “Fourth World” a la Jon Hassell’s “Dream Theory in Malaya.” Yes, the listener certainly can detect elements of it, of where it originated from in our world, but what happened to it feels as if an alien race tried to replicate our culture and could not quite do it successfully. Such is the sheer level of the completely out-of-left-field aspect going on here. “2 frame GIF of 9-11 240 FPS” sounds like the early stages of the internet, the “wild west” I grew up with and somewhat miss given the much cleaner, tidier landscape and I would like to thank School of the Americas for giving me faith that the level of weird I crave online is still there, you just must look harder for it.