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Senestra - Stanford

Senestra Stanford coverAs the veneer of civilisation starts to fade, Stanford from Senestra soundtracks the notorious psychology experiment conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in 1971. Volunteers were enlisted to act as either prison guards or prisoners to investigate the psychology of prison life in a simulated environment. Intended as a 2 week study the experiment was cut short after guards became sadistic and began mistreating the prisoners resulting in the prisoners becoming submissive, traumatized, depressed and showing signs of stress. It was as one broadcast sample featured here states: "one of the most notorious experiments in the history of psychology".

Senestra is a collaboration between Alan Rider, a veteran of the early eighties UK industrial experimental scene with Stress and Dance Naked, and Puppy38, who records dark ambient and experimental electronic music as Hiroshimabend. Stanford was created by Alan Rider passing tracks recorded on his vintage synths to the Vienna based Puppy38 who added digital effects. Recordings would be swapped between the two until they settled upon the final composition. The result is a moody soundtrack inspired by the experience of all those who took part. Just like the experiment things get progressively darker and disturbing.

Stanford opens to the haunting John Carpenter-esque 'Opening Credits' with chiming tones over a subtle electronic pulsing score, leading into the throbbing pulse of 'Prologue' with the dot-dash beep of morse code, anguished screams and the clank and rattles of chains. One sample runs "What happens when you put good people in an evil place?" It's a question answered in what follows with a sequence of tracks referencing the progress of each day of the experiment.

'Day 1 - The Beginning' casts cinematic electronics over darting woozy synths, and constant pattering heartbeat rhythm. Below that lies sustained wailing sirens and muffled samples which only add to the ominous nature. It's worth pointing out that listening to this on headphones is recommended as just as the experiment yielded unintended effects lurking below the surface veneer of Stanford is a lot of sonic detail casual listeners might miss.

Buzzing shudders and deep electro tones lead into analogue sequences of 'Day 2 - False Dawn' pulsing over a darker undercurrent of of chilling waves, as the prisoners begin to rebel and the experiment descends into a hellish reality. This day marked the beginning of the psychological warfare and brutality administered by the prison guards. By 'Day 3 - Submission' there is already a sense of disquiet, the tension apparent in quickened analogue sequences bubbling against wailing textures and shreds of harsh distortion. The clink of jail cell locks and rattles - prisoners carried chains padlocked to their ankles - amidst the shift and waver of synth tones only heighten the sense of disarray reflecting the unfolding deterioration of the situation. By this point, one prisoner after suffering a mental breakdown was released.

The beat that runs throughout Stanford is quite unobtrusive and simple but underneath the spiralling synth waves of 'Day 4 - Division' it serves its role well. At this point guards adopted a divide and conquer strategy placing good prisoners in privilege cells and rebellious prisoners into bad cells. This caused distrust amongst inmates, heightened by the arbitrary switching of prisoners between cells and increased used of brutal surveillance and conditions. Perhaps mapping the declining mental health and increased stress levels of the prisoners in layers of dense, cyclical buzz droning it takes a turn to the more ominous as that incessant pattering rhythm becomes more insidious and torturous in effect.

Foregoing sequences, 'Day 5 - Visitation' is stark. This one is much more experimental in sound with dive-bombing synth modulations, quivering electronics and incessant hammering tapping out a morse code beat. An observer provides a running commentary on the situation as prisoners struggle for individual survival. This was the day of family visitations, and one prisoner particularly impacted by the experiment was ill and isolated. The brutality of the guards is caught on a sample here, encouraging the others to single him out as a bad prisoner as they chant in unison "Because of what Prisoner #819 did, my cell is a mess". Prisoner #819 refused to leave.

The curtailment of the experiment is captured on 'Day 6 - Close to the End' with an evolving stretched distorted drone punctuated by slow scrapings, distant bangs and clatter, seguing into the clanks and creaks and buzz oscillations of the 'Epilogue' and the repeated sample of "It was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don't regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state."

The Stanford Prison Experiment may now be regarded as flawed and unethical but the sounds delivered by Senestra are crisp and clear deployed with a cohesiveness soundtracking the progression of this notorious study. The disquieting theme and use of vintage experimental electronics will resonate with lovers of of early industrial electronics such as Konstruktivists and Cabaret Voltaire. Senestra have done a great job. Unlike the experiment, it won't turn you into a willing perpetrator or a victim of evil but you will be held captive. Great stuff. Stanford is available on CD and digitally from Fourth Dimension and Senestra bandcamp