'What happens if you put good people in an evil place....?'
It's a question that is repeated throughout the prologue of this compelling concept piece, a musical imagining of the Stanford Prison Experiment which, as we're reminded at the start, was 'one of the most notorious experiments in the history of psychology'.
To give some background to the album, the Stanford Prison Experiment took place in 1971, subjects were divided into prisoners and guards in a fake ‘prison’ set up in the basement of Stanford University's Psychology Faculty in California. If this were suggested as the basis of a modern grotesque reality show it would be dismissed immediately because of its extreme cruelty and being deeply unethical. As it was, the experiment was halted after only six days of its planned two-week study. The experiment demonstrated how quickly human behaviours can change and degrade in a situation of power and powerlessness. There are, as you can imagine, many lessons to be learned from this failed project.
This is a frequently bewitching record, a haunted soundworld created through a mix of vintage analogue equipment and modern production techniques. Disembodied voices add to the disorientating effect. The album follows the doomed experiment in a linear style - moving from the ambitious start (the retro-futurism of 'Day 1 - The Beginning ' and 'False Dawn' could be long lost early John Foxx or Human League instrumentals), to the awful end. 'Submission' and 'Division' feel like soundtracks to bleak science fiction films from the 1970s, but it's the unsettling 'Day 6 - Close to the End' and 'Epilogue' that are the most shattering works here. The mental disintegration of the subjects resonates through the scraping of guitar strings, clanging pianos, and enveloping synths.
'Stanford' is the debut release by Dark Electronic Duo, Senestra, whose members are Alan Rider and Puppy38. Alan has been part of Stress, Attrition, Dance Naked, Mummies & Madmen, and Adventures in Reality; while Puppy38 is noted for their work with Hirioshimabend and Opiumdenpluto. Alan is also a writer, whose books have included Tales from the Ghost Town, the history of the fanzine scene centered on Coventry and the West Midlands. And most recently has become a frequent and valued contributor to Outsideleft.
'Stanford' is a brave work, a piece of musical storytelling that demands your full attention. As a debut, it is a remarkable introduction. More of this dark storytelling, please!
Senestra's Stanford is available from Bandcamp⇒
Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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