Much has happened to the culture, soundscapes, and social relevance of dark alternative music since the heyday of Marilyn Manson in the late 90s. While spooky grooves, macabre imagery, and blasphemous lyrics might not be as threatening as they once were in Manson’s glory days, dark alternative subculture is undoubtedly thriving. One need look no further than the brooding trimmings of Billie Eilish, or the explosive punk undercurrent at the heart of Poppy’s recent single “Scary Mask” for proof that at the very least the superficial characteristics are back in vogue. On the fringes of the mainstream, old stalwarts like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Manson remain prolific, while indie labels like Glitch Mode Recordings, Blind Mice Productions, and Negative Gain Productions deal in a variety of up and coming independent artists adamant on taking the movement forward.
Within this frontier of artists is an act that transcends its peers with a keen ability to evolve the stagnant boundaries of gothic-industrial music for a modern era: Sydney-based duo SNVFF, coming at you like an aural snake, possessing a fast bite with long-lasting venom. Comprised of Joey Alucvrd (noises) and Alicia May (vocals), SNVFF came together approximately six years ago when both were students at the same university. Initially bonding over a shared love of darker strains of electronic music, what began as a small project soon uncoiled into something bigger, resulting in two EPs and an ever-evolving live show. Alicia was gracious enough to provide me with a range of insights into SNVFF, from their creative process, reflections on their sound, to what drives them to create their particular strain of music – self-described as ‘dark electronic.’
‘The sonic freedom most of all,’ she shares when asked about the ‘dark electronic’ handle. ‘I was in typical rock bands for years before finding Joey and once we started making electronic music together I never looked back. You can synthesise endless sounds, sample anything and everything and turn it into music. And you can use the full spectrum of sound, the lowest rumbling fight or flight frequencies, the lightest ethereal highs. After getting the hang of making music this way, a guitar, bass and drums just didn’t cut it for me anymore. ‘Dark Electronic’ was just the simplest catch-all for what I myself find hard to describe.’
It’s a poignant explanation, one that perfectly articulates the duo’s approach to their music. One listen to either of their EPs, and you’re immediately struck by a special dynamism. They wield a command of frequencies and sound design that pull you in and envelope you, where in less capable hands the layers of sound would smack you like a dense paste. It’s an approach defined by mindfulness and clarity of intent, one that permeates everything in the project, right down to its name.
‘It feels like falling into an alternate reality, one where I can take feelings and thoughts that creep around in the shadows of my mind and dial them up to 11,’ Alicia explains. ‘Our name partially means ‘to take the light out of something’ and it does feel like putting this shadowy lens over the every day. Like a filter over everything.’
SNVFF’s ability to create through this unique filter sees them simultaneously evoking their ‘dark electronic‘ heritage – predominantly the sensuality of Collide, the rock n’ roll carelessness of Kidneythieves, and the cold sampling of Massive Attack – while showcasing that it’s possible to belong to a musical canon while eschewing/evolving tired tropes. Striking a balance between dark and playful, SNVFF marry their music to lyrical introspection that touches on the many facets of human intimacy. ‘I grew up on a lot of Tori Amos and PJ Harvey and other female songwriters from the early 00s,’ Alicia reflects, ‘and I think we often end up writing our own version of what we absorb. I used to be self-conscious about it until someone close to me told me once that in art, and all things really, ‘the personal is political.’ It’s possible to be both at once. But I think really it’s been a safe zone for me.’
SNVFF’s ethos is on full display on their most recent EP – 2016’s independently released INTRAVENUS. A deliberately slower and more calculated affair than its predecessor, INTRAVENUS is quintessential SNVFF. Every aspect of its creation, from the music and production to the artwork, is projected through their ‘shadowy lens.’ I found myself contemplating the behind-the-scenes aspects of such an immersive and brooding piece of work, particularly the headspace of its creators and the process they went through to capture its specific tone. Alicia’s reflections on this prove to be insightful and humorous:
‘We’re fucking weird in the studio together. We’re working on one laptop and constantly pushing each other out of the way to get our ideas down. I think from the outside it might look a bit intense, but we’re like two siblings, really comfortable in each other’s spaces, really honest with one another, and always taking the piss out of each other as we go so we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We don’t always see eye to eye but we have a question that helps us through: does it serve the song? If we ask this, it means that it’s not about one of us getting our way, or winning, it’s about choosing the ideas that serve the song best. That often helps us through. That and dank memes.‘
This helps me get to the heart of what most distinguishes SNVFF from their contemporaries: mastery of theatrics. Music is as much about musicianship as it is performance. Much as is the case with acting; sincerity, believability, and conviction are key elements that come together to pull in and immerse audiences. If you’re too heavy-handed, you veer into unintentional comedy. If you’re too dispassionate, the audience gets bored. Worst of all, if you take yourself too seriously, you risk turning the audience against you. It’s in absolutely nailing this balance that SNVFF take the excellent compositions on INTRAVENUS to a higher artistic plane.
‘I do feel like I’m playing a character in many ways, like I’m taking on the presence and voice of an alter ego,’ Alicia elaborates. ‘I used to call her ‘She.’ It was a way for me to fully dive into the ideas I was exploring lyrically and the way I wanted to sing without the fear of being judged for it. If ‘She’ is saying those things, behaving in those ways, then that’s not me. Now I feel like more of my true self is coming out, and you’ll hopefully feel that difference on this upcoming album.’
This character so to speak, can be felt most distinctly on their track “Gaslight.” My favorite track on INTRAVENUS, it quickly became a staple on my playlists. I was intrigued by how friends and acquaintances reacted to it. Across the board the reactions were visceral, whether in appreciation or dislike. Many were put off by what they perceived as heavy-handed sensuality.
Interestingly, “Gaslight” deals quite thoughtfully with the subject of gaslighting, certainly never veering into vulgarity or crassness. While the breathy vocals that float between the strobing beats and ghostly synths are tantalizing, they’re delivered with characteristic thoughtfulness. I found it fascinating that listeners comfortable with the overt vulgarity of many mainstream club hits were unnerved by a song that is objectively more restrained. Curious to know what Alicia makes of this, I ask what she thinks evokes these reactions, and if she and Joey ever consciously calculate where the line is between poetically provocative and over the top. She tells me:
‘I think really, we’re trying to provoke a strong reaction in ourselves. We’ve always made this band for ourselves first. The idea that people might hate what we do genuinely doesn’t bother us, because we’re looking to satisfy our urges first and foremost. I mean, that said, we like to imagine how an audience might enjoy or be affected by certain moments in our tracks, both live and in more intimate settings. It’s not a secret we like to make music you can fuck to and so far I’ve been approached by enough people who have confirmed we’ve at least managed that goal!’
Elaborating on the lyrical content, she adds:
‘I have a very strong focus on making sure that while the music is provocative and (hopefully) sensual on some level, that it doesn’t feel exploitative or derogatory. I want the character I play and the lyrics I sing to be sexually empowering. There’s a lot of heavy music out there with some pretty lame misogynistic lyrics and I always want SNVFF to be an alternative to that mindset and culture.’
It’s a forward-oriented attitude, and with two excellent EPs under their belt, SNVFF are gearing up to take it further with the release of their upcoming album. They’ve been coy about the details, taking their time crafting it to their satisfaction. They’ve previewed some of the material live, and it’s evident that their sound has been expanded to incorporate a wider range of styles, including harsher industrial-metal elements reminiscent of renowned video game composer Mick Gordon, as well as propulsive drum n’ bass breakbeats. Lyrically and thematically, Alicia alludes to further evolution, one that sees her widening her stage persona to allow a rawer presence to take front and center:
‘With this new album I’m actually moving beyond that private space and sharing how I feel about the world where it stands right now. What it’s like to hear a president say ‘grab her by the pussy.’ What it’s like be a woman walking home from a night out, with her keys in her fist, just in case you become another statistic, like the women you’ve recently read about in the news being raped and murdered while walking home from their own nights out. There’s certainly some more of the ‘personal as political’ songs on the new album but there’s also some ‘the political is personal’ songs, if you catch my drift.‘
In my eagerness to hear the album I ask about a projected release date. In this, Alicia remains more reserved, though no less thoughtful:
‘One thing we’re learning is that everything takes longer than you expect it to, especially when you’re working full-time and trying to squeeze in time to make music in the gaps. But good things do take time. I was listening to HEALTH talk about DEATH MAGIC and we keep reminding ourselves that it took them 5 years to make that album. And I think it was 5 years well spent. It was a total shift for them sonically and one of my favorite albums of all time, and I feel like this is going to be our DEATH MAGIC. We’re not going to rush this, and we’re going to do it ourselves and do it right. I think it’s the music I am most proud of making. It’s the music we always wanted to make and I think we’ve finally settled on ‘our sound’ after a lot of experimenting on the earlier EPs.‘
For the time being it seems, listeners will have to content themselves with the live performances of these newer tracks. As true to their ethos in their live presentation as they are on tape, SNVFF continuously elevate the sounds of their performances. They’ve recently added a live drummer to some of their performances, skewing the atmosphere towards a rowdier, rock-oriented experience. ‘Live shows are pretty crazy,’ Alicia says, ‘I warm up next to Joey backstage and I can feel him shift into gig mode. It’s like we both warp into new people. But in spite of all this, I feel as though the characters and the states we enter stay in the performing of the music.’
While SNVFF continue to regularly play shows as the album comes together, there are other developments on the horizon that we can look forward to seeing soon. Asking about what else the future holds for SNVFF, Alicia adds: ‘We recently collaborated with Phsy Aviah, which was an awesome experience start to finish. It was a bit of a trip! I laid down a vocal for his upcoming album and Joey remixed the track once it was finished.‘ She also has a side-project called Babetron where she channels her love for synthwave. ‘I’ve got a mad love of retrowave right now. It’s almost all I listen to. Gunship, the Midnight, Trevor Something are some of my favorites. It might not be what you’d expect, but maybe it’s to offset the dark music we’re making ourselves.’
As for dream collaborators, Alicia reveals a tidbit about SNVFF in her answer that takes me completely by surprise: they have never used guitars! With such razor-sharp sounds cutting through like buzzsaws in some of their tracks, I always just assumed they were there. Not so!
‘As for dream collaborators, probably a killer guitarist. We’ve stayed away from guitar in our music on purpose for years, to make a point that you don’t need them, but we’re becoming a bit less wanky and stubborn as we get on in age! It would be incredible to work with someone like Sin from Ministry, or grab some guitar work from Mick Gordon. But now I’m starting to think about it, really the ultimate for me is Alexis from 3TEETH. He’s got the sharpest mind and the sexiest voice in Industrial music and I’d be over the moon just to talk with him, let alone make a track together.’
3TEETH are perhaps the most well-known group in the new wave of industrial music. Fresh off the release of their latest album Metawar, they’re no strangers to collaborations, having worked recently with industrial hip-hop act H09909. Perhaps this is something the future holds for SNVFF. As far as I am concerned, the industrial music future is SNVFF. If you’re a fan of the style, then it goes without saying that their two EPs are must-listens. If you’re new to dark alternative, curious about it, or even a detractor, you’d be doing yourself a disservice not checking them out. Every bit as thoughtful as they are visceral, their slick take on ‘dark electronic‘ music is a cut above the rest. Their upcoming album promises to evolve their art to new heights, and until then, I’ll be giving INTRAVENUS another spin.
Joey Alucvrd – Noise
Elliott Orban – Live Drums