Tangled up amidst the drama of yet another scandal-soaked presidential election, this season we find ourselves perhaps a little more willing than usual to engage in discussions of a clandestine and conspiratorial nature.
But whether you’re a conspiracy theory junkie or a sideline skeptic, even the most patriotic of us loves a good old-fashioned conspiracy. Whether it’s the Watergate scandal or the inner-workings of the Illuminati, alien sightings or the mysterious murder of JonBenét Ramsey, we just can’t help but turn up our ears when we hear a juicy top-secret scheme.
And since we’re already listening, Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue decided to take our eavesdropping ears to the next level: his new album Real Enemies is a 13-chapter exploration into America’s unshakable fascination with conspiracy theories. Performed with his 18-piece big band Secret Society and released on New Amsterdam Records, the album traverses the full range of postwar paranoia, from the Red Scare to the surveillance state, mind control to fake moon landings, COINTELPRO to the CIA-contra cocaine trafficking ring—and everything in between.
“Belief in conspiracies is one of the defining aspects of modern culture,” Argue said. “It transcends political, economic, and other divides. Conservative or liberal, rich or poor, across all races and backgrounds there exists a conspiratorial strain of thought that believes there are forces secretly plotting against us.”
The product of extensive research into a broad range of conspiratorial lore, Real Enemies traces the historical roots, iconography, literature, and language of conspiracies, offering a compelling glimpse into the secrets, scandals, and suspicious sneakings-around of the American government.
“Conspiracies theories often take hold because they provide an explanation for disturbing realities,” Argue said. “They tell a story about why the world is the way it is. Paradoxically, it’s often more comforting to believe that bad things happen because they are part of a hidden agenda than it is to believe that they came about as a result of mistakes, ineptitude, or random chance.”
Like any good conspiracy theorist, Argue’s composition pulls from a variety of sources, both historical and sociopolitical (and in this case, musical). Real Enemies draws heavily on the 12-tone techniques devised by Arnold Schoenberg in the aftermath of World War I, but cleverly disguises them under sprawling layers of brassy big band jazz licks and insatiably funky bass grooves.
With cheeky titles like “Trust No One,” “Never a Straight Answer,” “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars,” and my personal favorite, “Apocalypse is a Process,” the expansive album unfolds like an evening-length jam session. The stage-worthy solos pour over from instrument to instrument above a musical backdrop which oscillates between atonal classical, 80s toe-tapping funk, psychedelic space jazz, and sleuthy 60s-era detective film scores. Samples of infamous speeches from figures like John F. Kennedy, Frank Church, George H. W. Bush, and Dick Cheney are expertly sprinkled in among the musical chaos.
And those are just a few of the major overarching musical influences—the album also includes pockets of minimalism, Latin-American salsa, Afro-Cuban jazz, synth-laden electro, and more. A staticky spew of TV news headlines and a couple motives borrowed from the famously paranoia-inducing film scores of Michael Small’s The Parallax View and David Shire’s All the President’s Men also make an appearance.
And in the final chapters of the album, that spiraling web of musical influences becomes a theatrical backdrop for a monologue voiced by actor James Urbaniak. A spiraling conclusion explores the paranoid mind head-on, blurring the line between fact and fantasy, truth and conspiracy—and begging the ultimate question: Who is the real enemy?