Negativland has, for quite a long time now, been a band whose reputation precedes them, but if anything the nature of this notoriety is certainly in alignment with the attitudes and aesthetics that got them embroiled in the first place. I refer, of course, to the legal battle with Island Records over the release of U2 in 1987, which contained parodies of some of the ubiquitous quartet’s songs, a sample of Casey Kasem shitting on them on air, and the titular two characters printed large and garish on the front cover. The lawsuit allegedly did not involve U2 according to member The Edge, who founding Negativland members Don Joyce and Mark Hosler, unbeknownst to the guitarist, were given the opportunity to interview in 1992. (I highly recommend listening to the recording to hear Edge-man stumble over interrogation about the hypocrisy of their then-upcoming tour which utilized media collages—the implication is that Island sued the band and stole their shtick; if that isn’t the music industry I don’t know what is—and babble half-assed excuses for doing nothing while his record company went after them, as well as reading the book published about the incident: Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2.) But Negativland’s highly-publicized media rights grudge matches are only one direction in which they stretch the slimy skin of the commodified reality of music much further than intended: they were apparently a significant force in the development of Creative Commons, a copyright designation that allows free use of the IP to which it’s assigned, yet a handful of their recordings are impossible to hear due to them being pulled or retracted; the Over the Edge Radio archive may be the longest digital release of all time at a duration of more than half a year, and “select copies” of the ninth volume of the show’s compilation series, released after Joyce’s death, contained small bags of his ashes; the oddities continue. Even after such a mischievously productive tenure, they’re still active today, which is wonderful because we need them now more than ever—the cold capitalist control of “officially” copyrighted material, especially music, spreads its darkness much more quietly now, but it’s not going away anytime soon.
I feel as though I have to begin a review of The World Will Decide with a disclaimer. Opening track “Unlawful Assembly” is brief but extremely intense, a hyperactive maelstrom filled with terrifying recordings of police violence, orders barked over megaphones, gunfire, etc. Some of you already have to hear enough of that stuff every day, and the piece is way more frantic and confrontational than just background noise, so if those are things that trigger you I’d recommend skipping it. That being said, it’s a fantastic cut and a step up for the band, I think, to me reminiscent of Network Glass’s Twitch smorgasbords or This Is Yvonne Lovejoy’s bad-vibes bricolage. “Content” follows it up with something much more traditionally Negativland: half surreal future-lounge, half alternate dimension infomercial channel-surf. Later we get the sound card malfunctions and unsettlingly sterile soundscape of “Attractive Target” and David Wills’ unhinged vocal contributions to the delightfully odd “Open Your Mouth” and Residents-esque nerd pop climax of “Incomprehensible Solution.” The title track and closer is a tumultuous adventure somewhere between hackle-raising paranoia and Public Service Broadcasting–level euphoria. I was skeptical about the appropriateness rather ridiculous cover of The World Will Decide but the music truly earns it. Despite its close tie to their identity, this record, like many of their others, proves that both the deceased and living members of Negativland had/have a lot more on their mind than just copyrights and samples with its existential musings, emotional resonance, and warmly humanist gestures.
“You do not have to apologize for being powerless.”