Considering everything America has gone through recently—two foreign wars, Hurricane Katrina, a devastating recession, a catastrophic oil spill—it's easy to conclude that we're living through the cyberpunk nightmare envisioned in From Rotting Fantasylands, the latest album of Brock Bousfield's solo project, Nero's Day at Disneyland.
A sci-fi take on Switched-On Bach, Fantasylands combines samples of emotive arias, orchestra hits and jaunty piano lines from Baroque and Renaissance music with the kind of schizophrenic sampled drums, 8-bit electronics and harsh synths you'd expect from Aphex Twin or Squarepusher.
On “In Ailes,” Bousfield borrows vocal samples from a recording of The Threepenny Opera—a 1931 musical critique of capitalism by the Marxist dramatist Bertolt Brecht—playing them in reverse to make disgorged vocal melodies. Over rattling drums and an explosive synth riff, the backwards vocals come across like subliminal social commentary about a society gone mad.
Influenced as much by American Splendor comic writer Harvey Pekar as post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler, From Rotting Fantasylands is as dark as it is ridiculous.
“It's a sardonic take on ridiculousness” of today's society, Bousfield says of his album. “It's definitely intentional.”
In a way, it makes perfect sense that Bousfield, a softspoken 28-year-old who lives in Oakland, grew up in the suburban San Diego neighborhood of Clairemont. For certain people, the suburbs—with their indiscriminate winding streets and ubiquitous chain stores—can be an incubator for madness and rebellion. As a former member of Beautiful Mutants, a synth-punk band that formed the center of a short-lived “mutant punk” scene in San Diego in the late '90s and early '00s, Bousfield knows that all too well.
Beautiful Mutants' songs parodied the emptiness of suburban life. “I buy the things I need / so I can feel OK,” the singer intones over a jaunty keyboard marimba in one track. “When I'm out of Miracle Whip / nothing tastes quite the same.”
The “mutant punk” scene—inspired by Devo's idea of “de-evolution,” the idea that humankind is regressing rather than evolving, along with drug-addled sci-fi literature like William Gibson's classic 1984 novel Neuromancer—was inherently out of control. With their crazy shows and penchant for drugs, the Beautiful Mutants felt like a radical response to all of the things San Diego is known for: the military presence, the conservative political establishment, the nondescript geography of the suburbs.
One show at Gelato Vero is still burned in my mind as one of the craziest I've ever been to: As Hide and Go Freak (a band that formed after Beautiful Mutants broke up) played sloppy synth-punk, a wildly drunk couple crashed into a crowd of dancing gutter-punks who looked like extras from Blade Runner. When a skinny guy who went by the name Kevin Von Mutant began playing harsh industrial music from a computer, people started drumming maniacally on random pieces of metal. The floor felt like it would fall through. Anticipating a riot, the management kicked everybody out.
Unsurprisingly, none of these bands got a scrap of media attention. “No one was watching, so you felt like you could just do anything,” Bousfield says.
In the early '00s, the scene began to fragment when Beautiful Mutants guitarist Nick Galvez died. A month after his death, Hide and Go Freak's keyboardist died of alcohol poisoning. Soon after that, Bousfield moved to Santa Cruz. “It was just time to get out,” he says.
Today, San Diego's “mutant punk” scene is all but forgotten.
But Bousfield is still Nero's Day at Disneyland—the solo project he's been working on since he was 16— playing sci-fi fugues on keyboards painted neon colors. And as track titles like “Charging Swarm of Mouseketeers” and “Plumes of ATM Sinew” suggest, he hasn't lost his warped sense of humor about our decaying materialistic society.
Nor has he lost sight of it. Ironically, in his day job he tape-records business meetings and conventions at hotels.
“I get to see people from BP talking amongst themselves,” he says.
Nero's Day at Disneyland plays with Mincemeat or Tenspeed, Bubblegum Octopus, Take Up Serpents and Nerfbau at Che Café on Saturday, July 31. myspace.com/nerosdayatdisneland.