While the existential question of our planet’s future holds prominence in our public consciousness (and yet still fails to breach the minds of some), the lingering prospect of alien life in the vast outer reaches of our universe has further debilitating implications for our existence. Pressing still is a question of response: if we were to receive the signals of extraterrestrial life, in what fashion should we answer?
Hailing from Scotland, Post Coal Prom Queen seek to amplify this feeling of intergalactic trepidation with their sophomore album ‘Music For First Contact; a follow up to the politics-fueled, avant hip-hop of ‘Music For Hypercapitalists’ in 2021. At the helm of PCPQ are duo Lily Higham and Gordon Johnstone, but the record actualises an enthralling, cohesive soundworld with the aid of violinist Laura Wilkie, saxophonist Calum Cummins, pianist Baichuan Hui, and the operatic coloratura of soprano Stephanie Lamprea.
Drawing inspiration from the ‘dark forest theory’ popularised by author Cixin Liu (positing life seeks to preserve itself by destroying other life), and bookended to heights of perfection, the album draws an overall cinematic, delicate beauty from the sum of its timbral parts.
This voyage commences with the soaring piano and voice-led operatic exposition of ‘I See No Gods Up Here’, the opener’s theremin-esque vocalisations harkening back to old sci-fi scores. Its serenity is dispersed with the entrance of a menacingly held bass synth, which segues into a characterful palette of orchestrated saxophone and violin, atop a chattering 909 drum machine. A strong sense of ethereal exploration maintained throughout, the track crescendos towards its defiant climax, before withdrawing to the eerily isolated crackle of vinyl.
From here we transition into ‘See Red Peace’ – one of two interlude-length pieces on the album – which gently dials back like an airlock in decompression, the operatic trills aptly framed by an ever-rich soundscape.
The first instance of brushstroke acoustic drums appears with ‘Wheeling Through The Void’, its backing vocals subtly obscured as the echoes of cosmic background microwave radiation; the lyric “voices from the deep” further mimicking this notion of the unexplored. The track evokes a deeper meditation on humanity’s impermanence; held up to the universe’s “cosmic tongues” and “infinite lungs” we acknowledge the significance of our existence on a terrestrial scale, and yet are forced to contemplate our stark insignificance in the greater scheme of things, this damning phenomenon traceable to the capture of Earthrise in 1969.
Tracks like ‘Daylight On Deimos’, its twinkling piano motifs and interstellar siren calls weaving in and out of turbulence and serenity, and the latter interlude ‘Cosmic Tongues’ framing more heavily effected vocalisations with the dirge of exploratory depths, are certainly in-keeping with a strong sense of cohesion across the record’s runtime. On the other hand, the structurally pop-leaning inclusions of ‘Free Radio Phobos’ – a haunting breathiness here with satisfying saxophone motifs in chromatic descent – and 909-laden ambient house stomper ‘From Glasgow To Mars’ – an electroacoustic masterclass ornamented by birdlike operatic ostinatos – can be said to possess autonomy in their own right beyond the album’s scope.
In the same vein as its defiant opener, PCPQ close the record with their dramatic finale ‘Sapere Aude’. Commencing with the fuzz-laden ambience of sustained e-bow guitar, then growing with added urgency of kick drums and gated toms set back in the mix as dramatic intrigue, the soundworld’s characteristic components recapitulate, growing steadily towards a spacious release. Low piano stabs, funk-tinged saxophone motifs and further complimentary soprano flutters pair with a compelling four-to-the-floor beat on a 3/4 turnaround; the expanses of space, now littered with high vocal wails and fragmented remnants of chugging distortion, spell the ill-fates of first contact. Mimicking the universe’s infinite nature the album ends how it began, petering out with the haunting echoes of piano and voice.
A body of work dealing with a narrative of such existential scale might have the tendency to delve into the self-indulgence of long-form, but to its merit ‘Music For First Contact’ shies away from quantitative grandeur, and instead maintains the quality of its parts throughout. The album possesses a truly intergalactic dynamism, offering the listener an auditory ticket to deep space exploration, and artistically considers the potentially haunting consequences of alien contact.
Words: Kieran Macdonald-Brown