In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud defines the term as follows: “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” To this end, a feeling of uncanniness distinguishes itself from just being afraid because of its relation to what we already know, a disturbing variation of what we expect to see when we look in the mirror or the kind of horror that comes from inside the house. The uncanny valley, for instance, describes the creepiness that seeps in when we encounter an almost but not quite perfect replica of a human being (robots, computer animations, the list goes on).
While I can go on for pages about what the uncanny means or where it comes from, the only real way to understand uncanniness is to experience it, directly and to its fullest extent. And listening to Dave Phillips is an easy way to do just that.
Engaging Phillips’ solo work is a demanding process. Beyond just throwing a record on a turntable or a cd into a stereo and letting the sound wash over you, Phillips’ work places the listener face to face with the uncanny nature of our current condition, a world that can feel so normal and comfortable at times but a closer inspection of any detail reveals how that feeling was always inherently a lie. Everything feels slightly off, slightly terrifying, as even the most foundational ways of being part of humanity, society, and nature feel weirdly uncomfortable in our grasp. Even if we’ve held them forever.
Although Phillips has explored a wide swath of aesthetic territory within the realms of noise and experimental music (the creaking drones of They Live, the claustrophobic collage of Ritual Protest Music, the pristine insect sounds of Cicada Trance), his work has always centered this worldview and forced the listener to face the fact that a disturbing truth lurks beneath even the most banal of human encounters. On Human Nature Denied, Phillips draws on all avenues of his previous work to pull us into an encounter with the uncanny, an affect that has become all the more potent amid the ongoing pandemic. Field recording Phillips, cut up Phillips, and dissonant string quartet Phillips all make appearances on this album at times, and all of them feel equally terrifying in their near recognizability.
Every sonic detail on the album feels both familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously: a heavy drone from a double bass unnoticeably transforms into a creaking floor while dissonant strings waiver between being real and synthesized; a harsh blast of distorted static implodes into a bubbling river; a slap across someone’s face may have just been a block of wood falling to the floor; howls come from god knows what kind of animal; and the list goes on. Even the text on this album, at times stating clear directives, dissolve in and out of the sonic landscape. And even when you can understand what Phillips is saying, the words act as a warped mirror, forcing the listener to see what they left in their wake to reach this moment of clarity.
Taken together, Human Nature Denied produces a lightning rod in Phillips’ massive body of work, one that clearly distills the message Phillips instills in each new album: the world only feels safe to some because it is made unsafe for others. And to be comfortable is to be complicit in the violence that produces our world. Recognizing this capacity within oneself forces a change in how we view ourselves, and when we turn our gaze back on ourselves after this reckoning, the uncanny can settle in as a we see something in ourselves that was always there, that should feel immediately recognizable, but not quite. Therein lies the source of terror that Phillips connects us to again and again. This is why listening to Human Nature Denied leaves us with a deep pit in our stomach, one that will eventually be filled by the bacteria we conveniently ignore when we see ourselves as human.
-Peter J. Woods