Sean “Scary” Garner, one half of Cincinnati-based Black Signal, claims his Electronica project got its moniker from garbled, indecipherable transmissions from outer space. It’s a fitting title given the unique brand of Electronic music that Garner and bandmate Matt Ogden have been assembling. If NASA is hoping to get some answers from those transmissions, maybe they should shoot some of Black Signal’s songs back into the void.
Black Signal, which recently won the 2014 Cincinnati Entertainment Award in the Electronic category, went through several different variations of lineup and sound before settling on its current iteration. Garner, Ogden and several others began the process as a Prog Rock project, but as members left and creative blocks were reached, the sound evolved. One element has been retained from the beginning, however: the sense of darkness and unease that Black Signal instills in its recordings.
“We’ll never give that up. That’s the one part that has to exist,” Garner says.
Ogden says he’s a big fan of abrasive, Nine Inch Nails-style synthesizers, but it was only with recent upgrades in technology that he has been able to faithfully create and record the harsh tones he hears in his head. By keeping everything electronic, Black Signal is able to write, arrange and refine its tracks fluidly, and take advantage of those precious moments of stimulation.
“When we get into the concept of writing, we’ll have this initial spurt of inspiration and we’ll get this skeletal piece together and we’ll just mull over it, sometimes a week, sometimes a month, sometimes two months,” Ogden says.
Black Signal’s music doesn’t line up with much of modern Electronica. The focus is not on one moment, with songs built around a defining couple of seconds. Instead, Ogden and Garner have put together a suite of songs that keep the listener slightly on edge. Fans of traditional Electronica or popular modern EDM may be caught off guard by just how dark Black Signal can get at times. The songs weren’t written for the clubs (Ogden says “Dubstep” like it’s a bad word). A dark room and a good set of headphones is the setting in which Black Signal’s music truly excels.
Garner and Ogden have harnessed an auditory vortex by bringing together elements of Electronica, Industrial and Downbeat. The influences crash and slam into one another, veering from one style to another with reckless abandon, but the overall sound is never jumbled. Each track has a flow and identity. They just don’t all have an easily assigned label.
Much of their catalogue is instrumental, with only a few tracks featuring guest vocalists, none of whom appear on more than one song. When vocals do appear, they add a dichotomy to Black Signal’s atmospheric soundscapes. For example, on the track “Eden,” Jess Lamb (a soulful, locally based singer and Garner’s fiancé) lends a soothing antithesis to the Industrial-influenced song, resulting in a Cyberpunk version of Beauty and the Beast.
Black Signal’s recordings are akin to a great movie soundtrack. It can meld into the background, but also grab the listener’s attention at a moment’s notice. When the duo dons its leather jackets and LED-infused helmets and turns on its visual projections (aided by projectionists Kevin Poole and Mandy Wong), Black Signal’s live show grabs the listener and refuses to let go. As the beats are filtered through a venue’s speakers, many of the tones morph into elements that you can feel as much as hear, turning a passive listening experience into one that demands attention.
Combining emotional, visceral music with helmets and robotic, prerecorded speech in between songs may sound odd, but it fits with Black Signal’s overarching goal.
“We’re in this weird bridging gap where a lot of our friends are in Rock bands,” Ogden says. “An ultimate vision is having this show that we can play with our Rock band friends … and this other thing where we play (to) the (local EDM festival) Ubahn Fest crowds, where everyone’s holding up glow sticks. There are two versions of it.”
This duality is at the heart of Black Signal and it’s what makes its music so captivating. The duo’s live show is one part Electronica, one part Rock & Roll. They dress and speak like robots, but perform an atmospheric and nuanced blend of sounds that’s all their own. Garner and Ogden spend hours poring over the arrangements of songs that inevitably change after a shot of inspiration. And their recorded output is a careful balancing act between warm emotion and clinical precision.
Now, if only they could get a hold of NASA.
For music and more info on BLACK SIGNAL, visit facebook.com/blcksgnl.