Slow Dakota's latest LP is eerily timely.
Slow Dakota's Tornado Mass for Synthesizer & Voice is not a conventional album, but because of that, it might be especially well-suited to this current moment in time.
During this pandemic, the vast dissonances between our respective experiences as humans are being cast into stark relief. As some linger at home, others wait for unemployment or loan checks that have actually been cast straight into the arms of big businesses. Some insist that this is a time of rebirth and collective unity, others politicize and pontificate, others know only devastation or return to its front lines over and over.
These sorts of contrasts are everywhere on Dakota's Tornado Mass, which tells the story of a tornado that hit Indiana and its aftermath. The first track, "Coming to the Nuisance," is about a farmer who lives in a town where "nobody sees the seas are rising." This line is a fairly overt reference to climate change, which also causes disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes. Though flooding isn't the paramount issue on Tornado Mass, nature's wrath is.
Slow Dakota - "Coming to the Nuisance" (Official Video) www.youtube.com
Sonically the album is completely devoid of genre, as much of a collage as the average Twitter feed. Many of the songs are electric and energetic baroque pop, some even deserving of the label "jam" or "bop" (like the euphoric "Force Majeure"). But just as many are abstract and opaque, like the mystifying, mystically named "Witch in the Windmill."
But the album has another layer: a bizarre sequence of direct addresses to the President of the United States. "Private Pleading" is a whispered call for the president's help, and "Public Pleading," uses a literal house beat and involves telling the president that his pregnant wife committed suicide. It's a jarring twist, but then again, in light of the current state of Washington, the line feels appropriately disturbing if only because of the dire mood it evokes. The political twist doesn't seem to be referencing our current president so much as skewering politics in itself, critiquing the federal government for its total failure to respond to disaster.
Other than that, the album contains very little gore. When disaster strikes, it appears mostly as sound—wild synths and ambient screams, all perfectly mixed.
Redemption eventually comes in the form of community giving. The song "Feeding of the 200" describes the arrival of a team of helpers, who arrive and rebuild and ask for nothing in return. The givers know that at any moment, they themselves could find their homes eviscerated. The aid is a sort of promise.
At the end of the album, community members come and rebuild houses and bury the dead. Eventually, they leave—though you get the feeling that this is neither the end or the beginning, but just another cycle in a long sequence of disasters that have hardened and shattered and brought a community together time and time again.
"Timing is everything, isn't it?" PJ Sauerteig, mastermind behind Slow Dakota, told Variance magazine. "I started writing Tornado Mass years ago, about the custom of small, rural communities coming together to rebuild after deadly tornado strikes. Donating food, showing up to volunteer, expecting nothing in return. It's a very beautiful and holy thing to witness back home in the Midwest."
Today, practices of mutual aid—longtime foundational survivalist techniques in many communities—are gaining traction as it becomes clearer that many of us are on our own except for our neighbors. Importantly, mutual aid is never charity, and it always involves the promise of reciprocal care.
There is something holy about it, as Saurteig said. Maybe it's the essence of holiness, to practice reciprocal giving and receiving, to exist in a gift economy, to exist in a web of relations rather than one built on self-reliance, taking, and occasional charity.
"It feels strange to release the album in this cultural moment of COVID, wrought with destruction on a much more global scale. I have no intention of capitalizing on grief, or making a political statement," Saurteig clarified. "If anything, the coincidental timing reminds me (and will perhaps remind others) of the cosmic power of neighborliness, stoic compassion, magical thinking. Showing up not necessarily because we want to, but because if we do not, the tornado wins."
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