Real Enemies — the third album from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society — is a vast meditation on conspiracy theories, news manipulation, and reality rejection. Think of it as the sonic incarnation of our strange and dangerous times. Alternating spoken-word passages and a supple eighteen-piece band rooted in jazz and post-minimalist classical music, it slides in and around numerous styles with cloak-and-dagger stealth. In program notes to a Real Enemies performance, Argue cites influences like “film scores of Michael Small and David Shire, Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, early-1980s L.A. electrofunk-influenced hip-hop” — and he’s only getting started.
Composer, conductor, and self-described “ringleader” Argue, 41, started Secret Society with 2009’s Infernal Machines, seven tracks of expansively colored arrangements clearly indebted to Argue’s mentor, trombonist/bandleader Bob Brookmeyer. In 2013 came Brooklyn Babylon, commissioned by BAM and Beth Morrison Projects and designed as a soundtrack for a multimedia fantasy about, of all things, architecture. With the same commissioners behind it, Real Enemies was first performed last year with numerous screen projections accompanying the band. But the music — serious, incisive, and tinged with acid humor — can be appreciated at the highest level as a pure recording, without any visuals.
The intellectual foundations for the work include the book Real Enemies, Kathryn S. Olmsted’s dissection of how the swelling secrecy of the federal government inspired conspiracy theorists over the past century, and the distressing classic that refuses to become history, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter (both are quoted to chilling effect in the program). In an email interview, I asked Argue how he managed to foresee the future, given that the new album’s fantasies are catching up to current reality. “When we first began work on Real Enemies, over three years ago, we did not anticipate that a reality TV show host who had a side gig as America’s second most prominent Birther, after Sheriff Joe Arpaio, would somehow manage to parlay that into becoming a major party’s presidential nominee. However, what was clear from the way Birtherism was resonating with the right-wing base was that we were likely headed for a particularly paranoid moment in American politics. It seemed clear to us that there was a path for someone to rise to power by peddling the politics of fear, just as Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn — Trump’s political mentor, not for nothing — did generations ago.”
Real Enemies envelops you with seductive whispers throughout the first four tracks — “You Are Here,” “The Enemy Within,” “Dark Alliance,” “Trust No One” — with snippets of dialogue preceding the noir orchestrations like a new nervous argument growing from the last: “Yeah, but what about…” “Do you think it could be…?” In the opener, “You Are Here,” clarinet and trumpet dart around like nervous eyes, with a clipped, creepy angst that’s oddly familiar from vintage avant-garde classical. Argue confirms that “all of the tracks are thoroughly twelve-tone, both horizontally (melodically) and vertically (harmonically). Each chapter is based on a different transposition of the prime row.”
But here twelve-tone is eerie and anxious, rather than the sober and cerebral recital fodder of mid-twentieth-century concert halls. “This is music that literally emerged from the crater of World War I,” Argue says. “All of Europe was having an existential crisis. Four years of unspeakably brutal and inhuman mechanized warfare, mass death on an unprecedented scale, millions forced through a human meat grinder, all for absolutely no reason. Certainly in the music of Schoenberg and his circle, there is the desire to break away from the past, to forge a bold new path, but in doing so, the musical language unquestionably echoes the dread and existential uncertainty of interbellum Europe.” Indeed, Olmsted’s Real Enemies argues that modern forms and uses of conspiracy theories began in the First World War.
The Secret Society’s latest belongs to a boundary-free new strain of jazz poly-fusion that includes Maria Schneider’s The Thompson Fields (released last year), the new Beyond Now from saxophonist Donny McCaslin (the leader of the group that recorded Blackstar with David Bowie), and, to a degree, Wadada Leo Smith’s brainy but pastoral homage, America’s National Parks. (Those less skeptical of transcendent spirituality than I would also include last year’s Seventies-flavored sensation, Kamasi Washington’s The Epic.) This is the most active and adventurous mode of music right now. No matter how unhinged the times, these players show how to improvise our way through it all.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society play National Sawdust on October 2.