Jazzy Conspiracy: Secret Society’s ‘Real Enemies’

Darcy James Argue’s band Secret Society recently released “Real Enemies,” an album that explores all manner of American conspiracy theories, from Area 51 to the CIA-Contra cocaine trafficking ring. The album, originally a performance project, consists of 13 tracks with titles such as “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars” and “Trust No One.” Heavily influenced by John Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece “Love Supreme,” the saxophone-heavy album develops the theme of conspiracy with unique instrumentation and fervent rhythms. The album decenters the listening experience by eschewing the traditional key-based system for Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, a musical invention that ensures that no one note is dominant.

The album begins and ends with two identically titled tracks: “You Are Here.” Upon actually listening to the tracks, one realizes that they are two completely different pieces, couched in twin titles that bookend James’s album with an innocent conspiracy. Another track, “Never a Straight Answer,” begins with a Hitchcockian flair, then continues into a digital-sounding melodic twinkle that grows more and more intricate. Later, a saxophone joins the fray, and the resulting interplay is a complex tangle of musical threads that mirrors the inscrutability of conspiracies.

“Dark Alliance” is a satisfying, disco-like track that is one of the best on the album. Its intricate rhythms and shifting tempo make excellent use of the disorienting nature of the twelve-tone system. “Casus Belli” is another gem, incorporating lively dance rhythms with jazz undertones to create a genuinely enjoyable listening experience. In “Crisis Control,” George H. W. Bush’s “New World Order” speech is set to skeptical jazz—saxophones acting as musical scare quotes that question the true meaning of his words. As the fervor of the music increases, Bush’s words are repeated, this time in montage. The effect produced is a fascinating exploration of the political fervor inherent in the framework of “us versus them.”

Individual tracks often sound muddled, meandering without momentum until they morph into another almost identical track. The title track, “Real Enemies,” is one such example. Instead of being a strong track that encapsulates the themes of the album, “Real Enemies” weakens the musical intensity so carefully built up in previous tracks. Other times, tracks fall into a stale rhythm, and many end up sounding like what Pink Panther and James Bond would listen to if they walked into a haunted house. Other than a general sense of creepiness that soon wears off after the second track, the album doesn’t attempt trip anything else on the emotional radar. “Real Enemies” portrays conspiracies as always sinister while omitting humour—think the Illuminati or UFOs.

Even with this single-minded focus on conspiracy theories, the themes of paranoia and the comforts of paradox do not emerge as strongly as one might expect. Titles such as “The Hidden Hand,” “Casus Belli,” and “Who Do You Trust?” are much too generic to lend any real historical depth. While the album incorporates interesting historical sound bites such as presidential speeches, these excerpts are not always convincingly incorporated. Despite its weaknesses, however, the album remains a strong foray into a fascinating subject matter. Its hazy rhythmic strokes are a musical version of Toulouse-Latrec’s “The Hangover”: a society so drunk on facts that a little conspiracy is all that is needed to make sense of everything.

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