Artist: Theologian
Album: Forced Utopia
Release date: 20 October 2017
Label: Danvers State Recordings

01. Side A 28:59
A1. In The End Times
A2. The Sisters
A3. We Envy Our Gods For Their Indifference
A4. Spent Fuel Rods
02. Side B 29:36
B1. Forced Utopia
B2. Subtract
B3. Indifference Redux
B4. Epilogue

Theologian is an artist I’ve been talking about quite frequently since the advent of This Is Darkness. His talents have been secured for numerous of the recent Cadabra Records spoken-art releases, particularly the H.P. Lovecraft ones. But the musical works of Lee Bartow go much deeper, spanning back into the late 90s as Navicon Torture Technologies, Bartow has been tearing up the death industrial, power electronics, and dark ambient scenes. All the while, his Annihilvs Power Electronix (APEX) label has been providing a foundation for a multitude of post-industrial artists.

Between 2009 and 2013, Theologian slowly replaced Navicon Torture Technologies as the primary of Bartow’s projects. Theologian has proved to be an incredibly diverse project, with sounds that can span several genres in a single track. This breadth of interest and expertise is what likely drew the attention of Cadabra Records when they were looking for dark eerie soundscapes to build the foundations for many of their spoken-art releases. The upcoming The Call of Cthulhu, which we’ll cover here, is likely to be one of the most impressive Cadabra Records releases to date, with Theologian (soundscapes) and Andrew Leman (readings) again taking the helm together.

The latest full-length solo release by Theologian is Forced Utopia, a look into a mind that sees in only darkness, in a world which is on a collision course with utter disaster. It equally examines the inner thoughts of one left to fend for themselves in an increasingly cannibalistic society, and the outer landscapes, as they dry and eventually conflagrate, burning to ash. The question of whether or not this existence is worth fighting for at all seems to be at the center of the narrative.

Forced Utopia has been an album that I’ve been pondering for a few months. There was never a question of whether or not it was worth taking the time to review, that answer has been apparent from the first play-through. But, dissecting the release, understanding what musical influences have come into play has proven to be a bit harder. In the end, suffice to say, it is basically futile to categorize much of what is happening here. The one comparison that does come to mind is the recent Shock Frontier, in the way that both albums seem to move through incredibly diverse stages touching on dark ambient, death industrial and power electronics, but also other, far reaching genres that would be much less obvious on the first analysis.

The opener, “In The End Times” has stayed pretty consistent as my favorite track on this release. There is a gradual build up, spanning several moments, before the terror is fully unleashed through heavily distorted vocals, which are given some of the most interesting treatment I’ve heard in a long time, a combination of effects which render Bartow’s vocals almost unearthly in their presentation. As the first half of the cassette progresses, we move through a number of different dark soundscapes, vividly painting that picture of apocalyptic ruin and mental degradation.

Side B moves on through varied mind-warping soundscapes, dark and sort of futuristic in palette. Toward the middle of Side B the energy is again driven into overcharge. Starting with a steady beat, electronic pulses, ghostly vocals hovering in the distance, we move into territory I wasn’t quite expecting. Bartow, delivers a vocal performance here, which is again quite impressive to say the least. Where at the beginning of the album the sounds were devastatingly harsh, here, we are taken into something on a vocal level which is more akin to an alternative rock style. But the rest of the track never abandons its cause, continuing to deal the devastating apocalyptic darkness that has saturated Forced Utopia. So, when these vocals pierce through, proclaiming the words, “This could be the year, I take myself out of the equation.”, it is a little bit more than gripping, it manages to add some serious heartfelt emotion to the album.

Forced Utopia came to us on cassette through Danvers State Recordings. An underground tape label run by Andrew Grant, also known for his project The Vomit Arsonist. (Note: Shortly after the birth of This Is Darkness, I reviewed Pulsed In A Dull Glass Bell by R.C. Kozletsky also known for Apocryphos and Shock Frontier, you can check out the review for that other brilliant release here.) The cassette format works well for this release, which seems to see the future as being so bleak. It can also be purchased digitally through Bartow’s Annihilvs Power Electronix Bandcamp page.

Forced Utopia is one of the most enjoyable Theologian releases I’ve heard to-date. I’ve been coming back to this release frequently and happily over the last few months, pondering it for review. While a review will occasionally give me a sigh of relief as I’m able to move into something fresh, this will likely be one of those releases I keep returning to frequently even over the coming weeks. Theologian gives us a little of everything that makes their music great, on Forced Utopia, while simultaneously painting a vividly bleak and disturbing picture for the listener to experience.

Written by: Michael Barnett