It takes a certain bravery to enter the world constructed by Xiu Xiu on their ninth studio album. Angel Guts: Red Classroom is from the outset an uncompromising record that opens with a short drone passage and from that point on presents the listener with a record that descends into increasingly grubby and murky subject matter. It is shocking, it's exciting and it doesn't attempt to give any easy answers or clues as to its real intentions.
The album is bookended by two instrumental tracks, which make up the album's title - itself inspired by a 1970s Japanese sexploitation film that informs much of the albums lyrical themes. Both 'Angel Guts' and 'Red Classroom' are relatively similar drone pieces, the latter being a more violent sounding version of the former. 'Archie's Fades' therefore can be seen as the first proper track on the album and gives a strong indication of what awaits. Deep, muted drums and long synth chords, with the occasional squeal of noise, coalesce around Jamie Stewart's Scott Walker-esque wail. Stewart's vocals, buried so deep in the mix they are sometimes barely audible over the music sing of fear, death and the carnage of two trucks crashing into one another. His breathless delivery holds a certain excitement, which hints that things might not be exactly as they appear, perhaps even echoing the plot of J.G. Ballard's novel Crash, in which people sought sexual excitement from witnessing the twisted wreckage of vehicles.
It might be this excitement for danger that drew James Stewart to relocate to McArthur Park in LA, an impoverished neighbourhood in which he was mugged and in turn became the inspiration for 'Stupid In The Dark'. One of the few songs that skews more towards Xiu Xiu's poppier side. The verse's machine gun percussion and pulsing synthesiser is replaced with a chorus closer to synthwave as Stewart yells "You taught me a lesson / people are stupid in the dark." There is a dark humour to the piece, particularly in the way Jamie Stewart attributes the blame on himself. Yet things take a difficult turn towards the end of the second verse when Stewart whispers "once we felt sorry for you people / we're not that sorry."
It could be argued that this line is the understandable response of a victim towards his attackers, or even the words of the attacker - after all with governments both in the US and UK attacking welfare as opposed to the financial institutions that caused the crash it's understandable that any feeling of remorse is lost to the need to survive. But the usage of "you people" immediately reinforces old ideas of 'other' that become uncomfortable to hear. The history of gang violence in LA is well-documented and the area around McArthur Park is racked with poverty, so the idea of a relatively successful artist moving to live there and then expressing his disgust at "you people" sits uneasily. Particularly when only a few tracks later Stewart takes it upon himself to sing about the sexualisation of race in the subtly titled track 'Black Dick'.
Sex here is distilled down to just a select few body parts, each one distinguished by colour ("white ass" and "yellow titties"). It's incredibly puerile, not just for the title being repeated in an increasingly antagonistic way by Stewart, but also because it unfortunately seems to say very little. By the end of the song there is a sense that you've heard something shocking, but with very little value. A shame really as there are other artists who are tackling issues of sexuality and race in much more succinct ways.
Of course the entirety of Angel Guts: Red Classroom is meant to be a difficult journey for the listener. It takes us into the dark heart of humanity's obsession with sex and filth and comes out laughing like Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker, clutching a knife and asking (in a barely audible whisper) if you want to hear how he got his scars. There's a dark humour to the record, not just in the lyrics, but in Stewart's melodramatic delivery. "It's in the Kimchi!" he screams during the opening of 'El Naco', a frankly blood-curdling number that opens with almost saintly bells, before a barrage of high-pitched synthesisers appear. As the layers of noise build up it becomes increasingly bewildering and it's unclear what you're hearing, an act of impressionism, a momentary breakdown?
Things only get weirder on 'Adult Friends'. It opens with a sped up drum machine loop before synthesisers and what sounds like a modulated sitar appear. "I want to kiss you / nobody can see it" Stewart intones; the sound of squealing pigs providing a counterpoint to the almost teenage awkwardness of that line. Animalistic depravity meets innocence and is twisted and mangled beyond all recognition.
At some point you'll come up for air. Clear space after having your ears obliterated by Stewart and Angela Seo's nightmarish glimpse at the darker fringes of life on Earth. But still it will gnaw away at you, tempt you and repulse you, and you know what? You'll eventually find yourself going back for more.