Perturbator imagines a cyberpunk world forged in black metal

Coming out from the black metal scene as a guitarist, James Kent of Perturbator has found in electronic music and science fiction another means to express his pessimistic views of the world. By combining the cyberpunk tropes with the 80s aesthetics and black metal humor, the project has caught the attention of metalheads and science fiction fans after the release of their two previous albums, Dangerous Days (2014) and this year’s The Uncanny Valley.

While he avoids slapping genre tags onto his work, Kent admits he’s a cyberpunk fan. Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Akira (1988) are some of his inspirations, besides the clear connection with the 1980s. “I was born in the early 90s, but I grew up watching tons of movies, listening to music, and playing games from that era,” he says. “[I] was so [into it] I believe I have a sort of false ‘distorted’ version of what the 80s actually were. I think that in my mind it probably seems cooler than it was in reality.”

He’s hardly the only one. Mainstream culture is currently full of movies, bands, and games that have been influenced by the 1980s, from new titles to remakes. Kent says that choosing this decade as an influence was a “subconscious decision,” but the fact that he doesn’t really enjoy modern music is also a reason. “I think I’m not the only one tired of seeing remakes of classic movies and hearing bland music on the air,” he claims. “Recently, a lot of people must’ve taken a couple of steps back and realized that there was some good stuff to be salvaged from the past. Not just the 80s but also the 70s, the 60s.”

In an interview with WTF Magazine, Kent said that he decided to start Perturbator after watching the movie Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), a Canadian exploitation horror film directed by Jason Eisener and written by John Davies after the trailer with the same name by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Rutger Hauer (a.k.a. Blade Runner’s replicant Roy Batty), the movie is a colorful example of 80s nostalgia with a score that turns corniness into the ultimate definition of cool.

Perturbator brings the same feeling back to the 21st century with the pink and blue neon tones from Miami Vice (1984). In partnership with the visual artist Ariel Zucker-Brull, Kent has been developing the identity of the project through album covers and comics that go along with physical media provided by the label Blood Music. Their first video, She Is Young, She Is Beautiful…, is a pixel art animation that combines the style of retro racing games with the decay of the 80s horror and science fiction movies. “The video came out great and got a really huge reaction, as I believe it was one of the first music videos within this growing genre to marry interesting images with the great music that’s coming out,” says J., Blood Music’s manager. The next step was then creating a live action video clip, but it turned out to be too expensive for an underground music label. “Directors were looking for $30,000 budgets or more to create epic sci-fi worlds,” he said. “When we couldn’t afford that, they wanted us to put beer ads inside the video, to which we both were vehemently opposed.”

The solution was found in going back to their roots and creating a new pixel art video, now with Valenberg — an artist previously known for his looping GIFs — who has also worked with another musician from the electronic scene, Victor Love of Dope Stars Inc. Sentient was Valenberg’s first music video though, and being a track with female vocals, it was a good chance to put a woman at the center of the narrative. Actually, this is an outstanding characteristic in Perturbator’s artwork — from the album covers to the comics. According to J. of Blood Music, these images were based on VHS covers, horror movie posters, and videogame boxes from the 70s and 80s, when they used to show women “in horrified or uncompromising positions to sell tickets.”

Adding Ariel Zucker-Brull’s artistic view to the project created, on the other hand, an extra dimension. “A big part of Ariel’s work is a crossover between fashion and smut. Gritty, fashionable nudes from daily life,” explains J., who affirms that the direction that Perturbator is taking has the intention of showing women in positions of power. “This is something that we weren’t quite sure how it would be received, but more women are interested in Perturbator than any other project on the label by far.”

J. says that the women depicted in the covers of Perturbator’s records are the main characters of the albums’ stories, though the plot is presented to us in a second-person point of view. Still, these female protagonists are portrayed in a very sexualized way that follows a tradition coming out from the metal scene, in which you have bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Dimmu Borgir, and Cradle of Filth using the female body as an erotic element added to a gory context. J. says that, in the case of Perturbator, women might be exposed in a hyper-sexualized way, but they are still strong, dominating, and “essentially the kind of characters that will lure you in and perhaps kill you.”

This brings us back to the femme fatale stereotype that cyberpunk borrows from noir fiction, but it’s also a cliché from horror movies and other examples that see the genre blend with science fiction, like the film Species (1995). In Sentient, the closest comparison would be the classic William Gibson character Molly Millions, who appeals to what J. enforces by saying that, conceptually, Perturbator is going in with the opposite approach to violence towards women. “The idea stems from the fact that the female form in and of itself shouldn’t be considered foul,” he claims. “Females themselves and the female form are quite powerful when left unfettered, and we attempt to explore this in a way by flipping tables on classic sexploitation.”

The video for Sentient is said to present the “religious” part of Perturbator’s fictional world. On their Bandcamp page, The Uncanny Valley is described as a journey of a duo that is trying to fight against a Cult that remains active after the War Against Machines. As androids are being destroyed, a “church” is converting people into robots by using “sexual deprogramming.”

That was the first idea J. had for Perturbator’s video, and then Valenberg contributed by creating a dream sequence full of religious symbols that represent James Kent’s mindset and background. “I have my own personal views about our world, which, if I can be completely honest here for a minute, are mostly pessimistic.” In his opinion, this is the “most obvious link” between black metal and cyberpunk cultures. “Both are about a sort of relentless ‘lack of hope’, they tell about our dark future and present, about seeing the worst of what mankind can be and realize that there is still beauty to be found even in the filthiest of things.”

However, when speaking about technology, Kent claims he is very neutral about it. “Of course this is all very exciting, and I do follow what’s happening around the world of science and technology quite a lot actually. I just think groundbreaking inventions and technological progressions are only tools.” The musician says he would rather “wait and see” what we make out of them, especially of virtual reality. “At first, it was used to create a more immersive experience for people playing videogames and such. Pretty innocent. Now, it’s been bought for a couple of million dollars and who knows what they will try to do with it?”

In the end, Perturbator’s fictional universe is, as with cyberpunk, a place of high tech and low hopes. As the characters fight against techno-religious fanatics, they find themselves trapped in a struggle that leads to nowhere, but the battle is still as challenging and exciting as trying to find out what is hidden in the songs and glimpsed in the videos and artworks.

Originally published on Versions in 2016.

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