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A Brisbane art music ensemble’s new album of ‘tortured’ reworkings of pop hits blurs the lines between musical order and chaos. 

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Let’s talk about torture.

Contradictory in nature, the idea of torture resides in our psyche, affecting the way we live and the tastes we form. For many of us, the gruesome murder of an animal for the sake of art – a slaughtered bull, a goldfish in a blender – is utterly repellent. Yet there’s an undeniable appeal to cinematic masterpieces such as Antichrist or Rendition, which encourage us to indulge in the psychological and physical pain of others.

We scroll through our newsfeeds, confronted by headlines designed to attract us to stories of violence and terror, but click on them all the same. It’s regularly suggested that the more exposed we are to stories and images that should shock us, the more desensitised we become.

So why, when we can so easily shelter ourselves, do we simultaneously consume it?

This is a question posed in musical form throughout Tortured Remixes, the latest release by Brisbane quintet Topology. The album, performed by classically trained chamber musicians, reworks famous pop songs from the past five decades, from ABBA to Bruno Mars and plenty in between. But rather than attempting to capture the original essence of these hits, Topology’s musicians take familiar songs and twist them, shred them to pieces, and record the remaining mangle of sound that’s barely reminiscent of the song that once was. It’s grotesque and disturbing to the core.

Topology’s musicians take familiar songs and twist them, shred them to pieces, and record the remaining mangle of sound that’s barely reminiscent of the song that once was.

Tortured Remixes isn’t positioned as a politically controversial statement in the same way as other artworks. There are no bold statements about using this music as an attempt to create social change. The journey of Tortured Remixes is an introspective one, encouraging us to re-examine our own relationships to popular music. It’s musically controversial, perhaps. But when thinking of conventions – harmony versus dissonance, genre verses experimentation – what art music isn’t controversial?

Tortured Remixes isn’t your average classical remix of pop songs. It’s not heart-warming like the classical Benaud Trio’s recent release Mixtape, nor pristine and heavenly like Cantillation’s Bohemian Rhapsody – Choral Pop. These releases can be seen as a way of drawing new audiences into classical music; those after a bridge between the contemporary and traditional. The classical remix can often be classified as ‘easy listening’, reorchestrating the pleasant melodies and harmonies – the purest elements of the original songs – into a wave of sounds that emphasise the emotions we attach to these familiar pieces. Other remixes are loyal to our sense of familiarity, and aren’t out to destroy them or mangle the chords into clusters of dissonance. That’s where Topology comes in.

‘Topology’, in mathematical terms, essentially describes points unaltered by stretching, twisting, deformity. Despite its musical contortions, the ensemble remains unchanged, untraumatised by the impact of its own musical torture.

This year, the Brisbane chamber ensemble celebrates its 20th anniversary of contemporary music making. The ARIA-nominated five-piece has a history of reshaping boundaries of genre and artform. It has created collaborations across dance, jazz, pop, even puppetry – never straying from the values it boasts of adventure and authenticity. Therefore, regardless of whether we like the group’s latest offering, it must be lauded for its loyalty to ‘topology’.

The level to which we can connect with this album may both depend on and reveal elements of our own taste. When I listen, I feel a level of emotional detachment, instinctively seeking out the wit in the remixes and their exaggerated viciousness. Perhaps it’s this approach to the concept of torture that allows me to enjoy the dark humour in a human skull being sliced open (Kill Bill: Volume 1), or an animated skunk being impaled to near-death and subsequently blown up by a grenade (Happy Tree Friends).

Tortured Remixes opens with ‘I Am Petrified’ – a comically violent version (and declaration) of ‘We Will Rock You’. The notes are dissonant, the rhythm is nonsensical. The strings (Bernard Hoey, viola/composer; Christa Powell, violin; Robert Davidson, bass/composer) bring us frenzied jabs reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho. It appears all performers are in conflict – though when they occasionally come together, they seem to gang up against the listener. The famous stomp-stomp-clap that underpins the Queen original becomes morphed into a spiralling, repetitive thump from piano (Therese Milanovic) – until abruptly, unforgivingly, it all comes to a sudden end.

This is the Tortured Remixes experience.

Despite the likelihood of many listeners knowing the hit songs that inspired these ‘remixes’, there is little room to find solace in familiarity.

‘Two Punk Fun’ takes off Bruno Mars’ ‘Uptown Funk’ in name (through anagram), and melody. It opens with a Bluegrass-style fiddle rhythm (and arguably more originality than Mars’ work, which had itself gone through a tortuous round of copyright lawsuits). In this piece alone, Topology proves its capacity to inject new life into a song while at the same time spectacularly deconstructing it.

By the time ‘Fantastic Note Coatings’ comes around, I wonder if I have begun to unravel. It’s as horrifying as the first track, but I feel compelled to latch onto every note. In the original, Mick Jagger sings a comparably sedate melody of his desperation: ‘I can’t get no satisfaction.’ Topology reimagines the sentiment: it isn’t sung, so much as bashed onto the piano keys at random, and screamed by the voices of the ensemble. Strings are bowed with vigour – one can only imagine the loose bow hairs streaming around the recording studio during production. From relentless improvisation (and one oddly contrasting Romantic section), the piece descends into lunacy.

‘Whinging Tweet’ is a catchy tango and, after a few minutes, passes without any major offense. ‘Viola Zen Cry’, however, lives up to Beyonce’s ‘Crazy In Love’. The saxophone is menacing from the start, though eventually borders on melancholic and indicates a more repressed version of this love-crazed sentiment. For the first time on the album, the piano plays a few high notes that attempt to sound ‘zen’, like droplets of water, before returning to the depths of the left hand.

Topology - Press Shot 2 - Landscape

About halfway along this psychological journey, I start to wonder: is this album produced by sadists? Why are these artists enjoying the annihilation of such well-loved songs? Am I a sadist for continuing to listen, even finding pleasure in these chilling sounds? After all, ABBA never did me any harm – but not even the innocent Swedes can escape Topology’s wrath.

Am I a sadist for continuing to listen, even finding pleasure in these chilling sounds?

‘Mere Malady’ doesn’t seem to stray too far from ‘Mamma Mia’ at first, until the melody appears in a contrasting key to the foundations laid. The rhythm starts to crumble away from ABBA’s creation, and as the instruments pound their pulse, the predominant feeling is now ‘a fire within my soul’.

The dreamy ‘Naima’ is perhaps the only track that escapes Topology’s torture, but it’s immediately followed by the devilishly titled ‘One Day Gavin Stomach accidentally left his uvula at the Laundromat, which was very fortunate, as just that moment the giant pancreas ship that transported huge barrels of Lion Saliva Liqueur came crashing down on Darryl Briefcase’s left throat, causing a cheerful explosion in the Plastic Janet Laboratory adjacent to Brad Breath’s Gearbox Grove’.

This piece launches straight into a musical ascent, which never resolves or tires. The sound is thick and the energy sustained; it is perhaps the most confronting – or dangerous – work on the album. Partway through, the bass line from ‘U Can’t Touch This’ can be heard underpinning it all, and while this particular element isn’t distorted (it’s a relief to be able to latch onto something our ears can understand) it eventually melds into the delirium of the strings above.

Finally, the album ends with ‘Tiptoe’, a theme enacted by a mildly humble pizzicato string opening. This is followed by an improvised saxophone solo, and any source song is beyond recognition. A final attempt to induce insanity, the last track burbles away into the distance of our minds.

This album is sure to inspire many reactions: fear, laughter, confusion, amusement, and – for some – an urge to switch off. And that’s all okay. Because if you feel any of the above, the album is a success. It has enabled you to react. Out of the medium of musical remix, Topology has created an original form of torture to which we’ve not yet been desensitised. And call me crazy – but I’m planning to play it all again.