Fans of artificial intelligence, and especially the singularitarians - followers of scientist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil - predict an interesting future: at the rate computers have been developing over the past 50 years, in 2030 the first machine will be designed that will pass the Turing test, i.e. a computer with an intelligence equal to that of a human being. That machine will be able to design other, more intelligent ones, and finally we will get to an IC superior to any earthling. They also maintain that those machines will take control and will save the human race, right before everything goes to pieces: a happy end. Could the same be applied to music? When music reaches a very bad shape and there's no hope for the human ear, will robots come and save the day? Well, we might not have to wait that long: the robotisation of the human voice has already started and it looks like the process can no longer be stopped. From the young rebels in the Arab world to the stars of Bollywood, from the Kingston sound systems to the ghettos of Atlanta, from the stars of Latin music to almost any bedroom in Europe, the auto-tune is king. Not only has it taken control over a wide range of musical styles, it also offers all kinds of moods: there are robots that sound mad and other that sound menacing, some sound like they're in love, down or melancholic. The first time we heard a sad robot (in my case it was about ten years ago, on Uwe Schmidt's rendition of Rolling Stones' “Angie” on “Pop Artificielle”) we almost laughed, but now, pop has found the ideal metaphor for the solitude this techno society can cause in the melancholic android.
The highlights on Virtual Boy's debut album have precisely this artificial melancholy we're talking about. “Empty Place”, for example: a piece of electronic pop with a modern varnish. It possesses syncopation close to dubstep but with some keyboard arrangements, sophisticated and romantic, that aspire to make it sound timeless. Anyone familiar with the Mille Plateaux / Force Tracks catalogue will remember the melodramatic electro-pop of Data 80: with them, the robots were singing over micro-house beats, but it's basically the same thing. Even more original is “Let Go”, an impossible mix of syncopated beats, acoustic guitars and a teen-hit chorus going “watching you baby / missing you crazy”. The evocative “Memory Of A Ghost”, built on a vocal effect that sounds more like vocoder than auto-tune, and a keyboard melody that could come from the first Boards Of Canada album.
Unfortunately, that's where the good things end. The album seems to be intended as a soundtrack set in solitary, remote and isolated places: the record sleeve, a rock in the middle of an ocean, is perfectly apt. However, things weaken when they try to disturb the peace, or when it becomes just plain boring. On the one hand, the needless raucousness of tracks like “Motion Control”, where that thug Skrillex could show his face any minute: I imagine the tune remixed with a couple of the man's drops and wake up screaming in horror. On the other hand, the instrumental tracks - where beats, acoustic scores and orchestral samples mix - they use too many textbook tricks (a melancholic arpeggio here, a psychedelic reversed recording there). Although some interesting things come from the mix (the weirder they sound, the more interesting, like on “Chariot”), with a bit more personality, they would have made a great album.