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Musical theatre is the only art form in which there is absolutely no discernable value. It performs the functions of emotion without actually having any, imagining that we can be tricked into having Serious Feelings by a vocal line delivered in a faux-vulnerable way, or by a series of lyrics so trite that you begin to wonder whether they are truisms rather than clichés.
‘Carousel’, the first single from East India Youth’s new album Culture Of Volume, is the sort of song that you imagine you might hear in an newly commissioned am-dram musical; the sort of thing that might be performed to a patchy audience of frustrated luvvies in a cheaply hired hall somewhere on the outskirts of London. “Carousel, carousel / Spin me round / Carousel, carousel / Holds me down,” William Doyle emotes in a tone so grave that you presume he thinks he has completed the sequel to The Waste Land. Musical theatre revels in this sort of GCSE lyricism, and so does Doyle.
East India Youth knows his way around a synth, but that’s just about all he seems to know. On opener ‘The Juddering’, for example, skittering toplines waft around in a vacuum of ideas, offset by quivering synths seemingly barely shifted from their presets. It’s an auspicious beginning, in that it perfectly presages the comprehensive lack of inspiration to be found in the rest of the record.
And throughout, there are the toppy, soft-synth strings, designed to give emotional depth to something almost sociopathically devoid of it. Take ‘End Result’, a track that relies on a combination of uncomfortable soprano and Radiohead-esque chromatic down-steps to produce something utterly, tragically boring, but delivered in Doyle’s characteristic way, suggesting Shakespearean import. And then, as if by magic, the middle eight comes, with its portentous piano stabs, Doyle hamming up the last phrases with joyous abandon.
That vocal, taken straight from the Guildford School of Acting playbook, is perhaps the most irritating element of Culture Of Volume. Doyle oscillates between straight-faced, well-spoken, RP diction and forced emotion, doing neither convincingly. There is nothing real here, only approximations of the real, Doyle horribly aware at every step of what he is trying to ape and how he wants to be perceived.
And that’s before we’ve even talked about the name. There is something uniquely offensive about a white, middle-class man naming his act after a brutal and corrupt organisation that ruled India with 350,000 soldiers overseen by an elite British civil service contingent tasked with a programme of modernisation and ‘civilisation’. Doyle’s bio reassures us that he is named after the part of East London in which he used to live, but there are some very serious questions to be asked of a man who cannot understand that it might not be appropriate to share a name with one of the great emblems of colonialism.
It’s probably quite apt, then, that there is a track here called ‘Beaming White’, which is a straight up rip-off of New Order. It works best when listened to while looking at the cover art, which features Doyle looking wistfully off camera, his burgundy tie adorned with a pin, the outfit almost as unbearably Caucasian as the vocal delivery.
There are some things that Culture Of Volume does well. ‘Don’t Look Backwards’ would be a reasonably accomplished pop song in the Pet Shop Boys mould, were it not for Doyle’s emotionless vocal. But perhaps the record’s worst moments come when Doyle attempts to approximate techno. ‘Hearts That Never’ is a techno track inasmuch as it sounds like Doyle has never actually heard the genre, but has only had it described to him. ‘Entirety’, meanwhile, sounds like Perc with everything that makes Perc good having been removed, ending up coming off like the soundtrack to a minor stage at a crusty suburban festival. ‘Manner Of Words’, meanwhile, clearly intended to be the album’s Very Serious Centrepiece, is a completely needless 10 minutes of entirely predictable chord changes, constantly threatening to build into a climax or conclusion that never comes.
As far as misplaced ostentation goes, Culture Of Volume will take some beating this year. It is ploughed-snow white; the perfect emblem of the unfounded seriousness with which so many British artists take themselves. Over the course of 10 tracks there is not a single moment that speaks to lived experience; not a single moment that has any relevance or bite. This is a Chinese whispers record, one that has been passed through enough cultural and aesthetic filters as to make it utterly meaningless. It’s the Farrow and Ball of wubstep, and god knows we don’t need that.