Sofia Reta are sorely missed in Baltimore. The duo decamped for Providence, and then Los Angeles two years ago, and despite the fact that everyone makes art or plays in a band or writes or takes photographs, I haven’t found any other person or group whose work hits me right between the eyes like Sofia Reta. It’s a feeling I can’t quite articulate, somewhere between satisfaction and respect and envy. When I saw them play at the Crown in June 2014, and after an art show by Amanda Horowitz that the Sofia Reta Corporation commissioned in the Copycat later that October, I was left with a contagious creativity and a curiosity that was without comparison as far as the Baltimore art world goes, despite living and around art galleries for nearly five years. No way around the bastardized term—the aesthetic and semiotics of their work light me up. The preoccupation with stock photos, logo perversion, corporate lingo and detritus, and ghosts in the machine fascinate me, and I find it amazing and depressing that I never came across anyone else working in that range locally. It bears some resemblance to plunder-phonics of Negativland and the half-remembered, half-imagined memories of Oneohtrix Point Never—the effect is startling, something like staring into a mirror and seeing the debris of your dreams splayed out, disfigured in places and beautifully cohesive in others. Something Radiohead did on a much less potent pop level with OK Computer and Kid A.
Though ostensibly maintained by two people, Sofia Reta prefers not to be personally credited, highlighting only those they worked with for a particular project. Their latest, an album called Bureau for Melon, features Marilee (Valise, Humanbeast). Bureau for Melon is split, perhaps arbitrarily, into two sections, one 14 minutes long (“BUREAU FO”) and another nearly an hour “R MELON”). It flows as one continuous piece, moving from meditative and heavily manipulated vocal loops to rhythms resembling distant jet engines and melancholy piano figures. Maralie’s vocals during the second half of the first piece are unaffected and coherent, a clarion call from the subconscious cultural cache of the music—“Security when everything lines up/Begin to feel, I haven’t in a long time” she intones, sounding a bit like Bowie on “Wild is the Wind.” Other vocals on the album are heavily processed and tossed into the uncanny valley, familiar but alien and slightly disturbing.
Delving into whatever sub-genre of electronic or experimental music Bureau for Melon falls into is pointless, all I can speak to is what hits me in the gut. What strikes me about Sofia Reta is their glee in colliding stretches of beautiful ambience and melodic motifs with abrasive and calculated chaos, like the Beatles’ brilliant and oft-maligned “Revolution 9.” So many artists I saw here over the past several years that were attempting to make something political fell flat on their face for a variety of reasons: too obvious, trite, and obtuse. None of them lit up a part of my brain that I didn’t know how to access. In the same way that the music of Grouper makes me feel like I have a window into the afterlife, Sofia Reta collects and reassembles the debris of our information and slogan-overloaded society into that something that feels as real as a folk song might’ve 50 years ago.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1992