“Who needs enemies, with friends as fucked up as these?”, to mangle an old phrase. And mangling is very much what Tobacco (aka Thomas Fec, aka creative mastermind of psyche synth act, Black Moth Super Rainbow) likes to do. Whether it’s the sound of his own voice through a vocoder, or those he wrings out of his arsenal of analogue synthesisers – several of which sound like they were brought to the brink of destruction in the making of this album.
Fucked Up Friends 3 comes hot on the heels of Tobacco’s last full-length, Hot Wet and Sassy, released in October last year. A record which further established his uniquely twisted mix of electro, hip-hop, psyche and slasher-movie horror (and synth, don’t forget the synth). Tobacco’s not changed his formula much in the intervening months, and to be honest, why would he? Over the course of multiple albums, both under the Tobacco alias and as Black Moth Super Rainbow, he’s developed not only a distinctive signature sound, but an accompanying visual aesthetic and lyrical style. So comprehensively, that his music seems to exist in its own gorily gothic, day-glo Halloween world. So coherent is this imagined world, I’m sure it would be possible to write the code for a ‘Tobacco song title generator’ that spews out likely track names. Some examples (which I’ve just made up) might include: “Up to the Knuckle”, “Wallpaper eyeholes”, “Percocet Rainbow” and “Thick and Yellow”. Any of which for all I know could be genuine tracks from somewhere in his discography.
There are certain circles of alternative music in which vintage analogue synths will forever be cool, and where a certain shiny sound that briefly pervaded pop music is perpetually recreated, celebrated and fetishised. Sometimes it’s in the name of retro kitsch, like Com Truise’s glossily idealised renderings of 80s electro. Sometimes it’s in the name of nostalgia, like the beautifully washed-out soundscapes of 1991 (aka Axel Backman), which sound like cassette recordings of 80s synth pop that’ve been left out in the sun for the last 40 years, leaving only faded ghosts of melody. But what Tobacco plunders from the 1980s is the decade’s glorious trashiness – the garish colours of graffiti and the schlocky horror of video nasties.
A track like ‘For the Queen’ would be the perfect entrance music for a gang of teenage hoodlums in an 80’s b-movie; oozing bad-boy attitude with synth notes so distorted and pitch-bent the result is something that sounds like a small animal being strangled. ‘Rat Bike’ sounds just like the name suggests: revving engines of overdriven synth designed to terrify/annoy the hell out of anyone in earshot. These examples are perhaps not Tobacco’s most emotionally complex work and are unlikely to win him any new fans – but when you’ve reached the point in your career at which you’re releasing the third instalment in a series called ‘Fucked Up Friends’, winning new fans is not a major concern.
That’s not to say FUF3 is one hundred percent obnoxious or inaccessible to tender ears. For all its brashness and aggression, these qualities are balanced out by moments of the kind of ineffable melancholy that Boards of Canada – supreme overlords of 80s synth nostalgia – made a career out of. In fact, I can imagine FUF3 as the soundtrack to a Boards of Canada fever dream, in which all the dials on their equipment are stuck in the red zone and they’ve descended from their hermitude in the Scottish Highlands to terrorise the youth. And sure, Tobacco works in more lurid colours than the brothers Sandison – the graffiti artist to their impressionists – but they’re both painting the same scene.
The adherence to the signature aesthetic and queasily ambiguous emotional territory means FUF3 fits very comfortably into the Tobacco canon – there’s no chance you could mistake it for another artist – but notably absent are his trademark vocodered vocals. I remember the first time I listened to a Black Moth Super Rainbow album, it took about four tracks until it dawned on me that, ‘OK that’s just how this guy sings.’ The mask of the vocoder is such an integral part of Tobacco’s sound and like any disguise, I’m sure it allows him to express himself in ways he otherwise wouldn’t be able to. ‘This Man’ is the only cut on FUF3 with discernible lyrics; over a swirling psychedelic synth-stew a machine-elf’s voice whispers ‘Never, never, never, never fall asleep again’. It’s not clear whether it’s a note to self or a warning of what’s to come – an ambiguity only heightened by the emotionless intonation of the vocoder.
For all Thomas Fec’s cult musician status – he’s generally media shy and frequently performs with his face hidden behind a rubber mask – in another life he could’ve been a popstar. Thanks to his effortless knack for an earworm melody and uncanny ability to wring such vivid emotional textures out of his analogue hardware, much of FUF3 is already deeply buried in my psyche, nestled somewhere alongside Boards of Canada and horror films my parents forbade me to watch a child. But despite his subversive pop genius, I doubt there’s much chance of Tobacco troubling the mainstream just yet, for which I’m selfishly grateful. Some things are best kept between fucked up friends.