“Punk” as a genre doesn’t really exist anymore. There are lots of bands that make music that sounds like the punk bands of the 1970’s, but simply recreating that sound verbatim obviously doesn’t reconcile itself with punk’s inherently progressive ethos. No modern band (besides maybe Death Grips) really captures the spirit of punk, sonically speaking, just because music has seemingly covered most explorable territory. There are lots of obscure electronic acts like Arca and Oneohtrix Point Never that could conceivably be making new, difficult music that embodies the punk spirit, but those artists will never reach the level of mainstream recognition that a band like The Clash did. This sense of punk being antiquated makes it all the more interesting when a mainstream electronic artist like Moby releases an album called These Systems are Failing, attempting to infuse his music with some punk energy. Unfortunately, whilst Moby can rail against his perceived injustices, he struggles to make this album cohere.
Going into These Systems are Failing blind, the first two tracks actually seem like a ridiculously strong introduction. The thudding drum machines and churning guitars lead into an extremely catchy synth riff on Hey! HeyI!, and the way the chord progression rises along with the shouts of “hey!” in the chorus is extremely rousing. It’s glossy, but very energetic, and it’s hard not to feel like your blood pumps faster whilst listening to it. The second track – Break. Doubt -is also very well composed and produced. It’s built around heavily distorted drums and angular guitars, along with another wash of glittering synthesiser in the chorus (which appears in almost every song on the album). It doesn’t have a refrain as catchy as Hey! Hey!, but the instrumental is still a lot of fun.
Unfortunately this sense of fun is what actually becomes the album’s undoing. As you may have assumed from the album title, Moby is taking this album extremely seriously, to a fault. The chorus on Are You Lost in the World Like Me goes “are you lost in the world like me / if the systems have failed / are you free?”, and it’s essentially the thesis statement of the album. It’s a vague, angry attack on nothing in particular, and it creates this overwhelming sense of impotent rage, which doesn’t meld at all with the propulsive instrumentals. Moby is obviously going for something like Anohni’s Hopelessness, but that album succeeded because it melded its dance tracks to clever, shocking lyrics that were performed in a way that couldn’t be ignored. A track like Drone Bomb Me works because of the specificity of its imagery, and because it couched its anger in a very human story. These Systems are Failing, on the other hand, is more like a diatribe, or a lecture, with one very successful man explaining everything that’s wrong with the world, seemingly unaware of the painful irony behind his being the messenger.
The album also isn’t helped by Moby’s vocal performance. He’s never been a great vocalist, but on These Systems are Failing he multi-tracks himself into incomprehensibility, which seems to defeat the point of filling the lyric sheet of the album with very pointed sentiments. Surrounded by walls of synth and rhythm guitar, it’s next to impossible to actually understand a lot of the lyrics, which further dilutes the protest nature of the album. Unfortunately, These Systems are Failing feels like a very half-hearted album. Moby is unwilling to go all in on the potential dance-punk party music he obviously could make, if the production is anything to go by, and is seemingly unable to make the protest album he actually wants to. These Systems are Failing means well, but it comes with too many hurdles to make any real sort of statement.