The eye—as organ, photoreceptor, or its modern substitute, the camera—is one of the most ubiquitous objects of fear. The thought of putting contact lenses in for the first time, let alone laser eye surgery, inevitably evokes terror. Yet, there’s also something so alluring about eyes and what they do. As they gloss over surfaces they convert light into visual feasts with effects ranging from ecstasy and sexual pleasure to horror and indifference. The Surrealists perhaps best understood the thin line between attraction and repulsion one feels when thinking about the eye. The fright we feel at the cutting of the eye in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s short film Un Chien Andalou (1929) feels both personal and universal. Georges Bataille even elevated the eye to its fetish value. To him, “It seems impossible, in fact, to judge the eye using any word other than seductive, since nothing is more attractive in the bodies of animals and men. But extreme seductiveness is probably at the boundary of horror.” The eye, as an edge between seductiveness and horror, also makes the field of vision particularly sensitive. The fetish of vision often overrides what we feel or hear, a consequence that certainly plagues the music industry today, where press shoots, glossy visualisers, and the distinctly visual nature of stan culture often take precedence over sound.
Funny as the analogy may be, it seems that British post-punk band bar italia understands the dangers of vision like no other. Scanning the band’s Instagram—which is full of zoomed-in iPhone photos used for single covers, Picsart-designed tour posters, and even a hilarious blurry screenshot of Miranda and Che in the Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That…—opacity reigns supreme. On ‘punkt’, a single off ‘Tracey Denim’,—Bar Italia’s newest album since signing to the American indie label Matador Records—member Samuel Fenton sings, “Fear has a fetish for eyes / One look and you’re paralysed.” Considering the musical background of the trio of Nina Cristante (of solo project NINA), Jezmi Tarik Fehmi and Sam Fenton (also of the duo Double Virgo), whose first projects were released under collaborator Dean Blunt’s enigmatic and underground cult status Word Music label, it’s only fitting that Bar Italia often avoids from the limelight of the public eye.
On the 15-track ‘Tracey Denim’, a project more than double the run time of their first two LPs, ‘Quarrel’ and ‘Bedhead’, bar italia unravels the sprawling and playful, yet concerted, development of their sound. Largely abandoning the sketchy, diaristic transitions and abrupt ends so characteristic of their previous sound—and World Music acts, generally—’Tracey Denim’ progresses with relative sonic coherence. However, fitting to form, the album cover still retains the opaque quality of the Microsoft Paint stick figure on ‘Quarrel’ and the graphite bug on ‘Bedhead’ despite portraying the three band members sitting outside a café. The high-contrast, noisy black-and-white image sets the punk-inspired tone for an album that explores genres ranging from British dream pop and post-punk to shoegaze and trip-hop.
The album’s opening song ‘guard’ begins with airy piano and loose percussion resembling the deconstructive piano compositions of Aphex Twin or Broadcast. The track fluctuates between an instrumental density and sparseness as Nina’s voice flutters above it all. They kick things up a notch in ‘Nurse!’ and ‘punkt’, two of the three tracks (also ‘changer’) released as singles ahead of the album. In ‘Nurse!’, the dissociative fuzz of Fenton’s voice maneuvers behind and in front of the guitar’s shoegaze-sized reverb. ‘Punkt’ is musically intense from start to end, but the vocals are somehow both emphatic and concealed. Thus, the full force of Nina’s end refrain, “And I may owe you an explanation, / I just wanna lose control / And I don’t have a real solution, / Wanna say just leave me alone,” necessarily emerges through the fusion of her obscured vocals and the crescendo of the guitar.
The band then decelerates things on the slowcore-adjacent, “my kiss era”, ushering in a dreamier, more dissociative section of the album. It’s also when they turn away from earthly, depressive and insular questions of fear and loss up toward the clouds. Amidst the sounds of snoring slumber, they sing, “They don’t believe in heaven / Seen around here anyway.” This spiritual interest translates beautifully into the transcendent cacophony of strings in ‘Missus Morality’, a track that conjures both Slowdive and early ‘Isn’t Anything’-era My Bloody Valentine associations. It’s not a coincidence that the group has often been compared to Joy Division or the Cure (‘Bedhead’ even features a somber, decontexualised, and entirely reimagined cover of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ called ‘Killer Instinct’). After all, their dexterous use of genre reflects a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of British music. Thus, on ‘NOCD’ one can hear the circular cinematic drum loops of Portishead – just as the jangly guitars, spacious vocals, and floating violins on the album bear a striking resemblance to This Mortal Coil and The Sundays.
As ‘Tracey Denim’ moves toward its end, though, one can sense the band freeing itself from the tyranny of influence. Thus far, the trio has expressed fear, doubt, loss, inner turmoil, and a desire for some obscure form of reconciliation; They’ve looked to the heavens, to the past of their own sound and of Britain. Having searched high and low for answers with uncompromising energy, they finally return to themselves with an unashamed self-confidence and self-resignation on the album’s last four tracks. On ‘Clark’, Fehmi sings in the refrain, “I guess you caught me on a bad day / But it’s okay if you’ve got time / You fuck me up so gladly / Kinda telling that I don’t mind.” On ‘harpee’, Nina sings that (whatever it is we don’t exactly know) the issue is not just her but instead, “It’s on me / It’s on them.”
They make a brief detour to the American post punk sounds of, say, Sonic Youth on ‘Friends’, which ends with Fehmi singing “I’ve got nothing left for you.” Then they collect the pieces for a final time on ‘Tracey Denim’s closing song, ‘Maddington’. Beginning with idiosyncratic percussion and jangly guitar immediately evocative of late-2010s Alex G projects, the track evolves into something in a league of its own. Nina makes a leap of faith in the chorus: “So I close my eyes and try to breathe / To try to leave you behind me / So I close my eyes and dive deep in / To see where I can find you.” Violins that peak then fall away in reverse meet with crescendoing guitar and percussion to erect a wall of sound around her voice. When she repeats the refrain, “And I don’t know how to find you / Just in the air around me,” it’s as if she has at last found what she (and the band) has been searching for in the air of music surrounding her. And with this, the veil of fear has been lifted and replaced with a light optimism. It’s an act made possible by resisting the visual as fetish, closing one’s eyes, and, finally, submitting to the unencumbered beauty of sound.
Words: Phillip Pyle