Activity’s Spirit in the Room Grapples with Endless Suffering
The Brooklyn quartet’s second full-length is an artful meditation on everyday carnageMusic Reviews Activity
I’m not sure I believe in ghosts. I can’t say I’ve ever consciously encountered one, and I think everyday life feels easier to swallow without the possibility of an afterlife. But listening to Activity is how I imagine a visit from the ghost of a loved one must feel. It’s moments like these that the edges of fear and comfort are blurred, and Brooklyn-based art rock quartet Activity also thrive in this realm.
Activity’s fear factor is due in part to the hair-raising, soft-spoken coo of lead vocalist Travis Johnson, which is prettier and more artful than a freaky nu-metal whisper, but no less unsettling. His filmy voice—half-sung, half-spoken—cuts through the mix, murmuring with the mysterious allure of a film noir character. The band’s records could also be likened to a noir—or the works of Kafka, one of noir’s similarly oppressive forebears. Their eerie rustlings evoke images of empty city streets at night, and their lyrics explore world-weary themes of alienation, paranoia, anxiety and disillusionment. Plus, there’s a bleakness lurking within their rickety melodies, unnerving textures and languorous percussive chug. But the reason these sounds and images resonate so deeply is that there’s also beauty within. Their meditative synths and enveloping vocals have a delightfully hypnagogic quality, and their lyrics—albeit steeped in different varieties of personal and societal torment—are stirringly poetic.
Their 2020 debut album Unmask Whoever was filled with abstract images—many of them vessels for deep-set anxieties and fears, like “a crashing jet in the shape of a man” on “In Motion”—as well as more concrete characters that represent the burden of human fallibility, like drunk ex-cops (“The Heartbeats”), bedside guardian angels (“Looming”) and a family reeling from the crime of one of their own (“Nude Prince”). Activity’s thoughtfully impressionistic lines are enriching to read on their own, and they also feel more true to the experience of disorienting unease than cogent confessions. But their music still feels revelatory, particularly on a track like “Earth Angel,” where Johnson mutters amidst whooshing clamor, “Gutted and stuffed with feathers / I am like the things I push away.”
Stylistically, Activity are satisfyingly fickle. Because their music hinges on sonic and emotional dualities, you almost have to describe it with oxymorons like “tender noise rock” and “no wave-y pop.” Their songs contain flashes of everything from krautrock and folk to trip-hop and industrial music, but they find a way to cultivate a cohesive sound world all their own. Activity conjure the atmospheric mope of Autolux and Blonde Redhead, as well as the hypnotic propulsion of Women and Can, and you can tell from their adept use of texture and rhythm that this isn’t their first rodeo—Activity’s members have also played in guitar-based groups like Grooms and Russian Baths.
With their second full-length Spirit in the Room, they’ve concocted another warm yet fearsome fever dream. Through every harsh drum machine pound and synth twinkle, Spirit in the Room attempts to find meaning in a life ravaged by chilling ruthlessness but still gasping for air, rife with possibility. The album wrestles with mortality, grief, religion and more specifically, the passing of Johnson’s mother and illness of his father. In the album’s final line, Johnson sings in a hushed, resigned voice, “Mother, come back to me,” and on the penultimate “I Saw His Eyes,” Johnson is haunted by images of his father, who, at one point, was unrecognizable after receiving cancer treatments: “I saw his eyes in magazines … I saw his teeth in TV screens.” There’s also a tribute to the late David Berman on “Heaven Chords” —penned following his death in 2019—in which Johnson purrs, “You formed a bridge from floor to sky / Swaying in a rented room,” as well as other stark images of death, like a request for the termination of life support on “I Like What You Like” and a halo spray painted onto a horse head on “Cloud Come Here.”
Naturally, these themes lead to musings on the futility of life under capitalism, like the punitive eyes of the surveillance state (“Where the Art Is Hung”), the acceptance of barbarism (“Department of Blood”) and pervasive feelings of numbness, isolation and self-hatred (“Careful Let’s Sleepwalk”). And understandably, there are religious motifs—most of which are cynical, like on “Department of Blood,” where Johnson scoffs at “whatever the lord is” and asks, “Give me your Christian thoughts / Are they anything?” But there’s also hope for an afterlife, as Johnson imagines visiting his father in heaven (“Under the blinding glare / I’ll meet you there”) on “I Saw His Eyes” and envisions a place “high above the trees / where there is no disease” on “Susan Medical City.”
Its cryptic lyrics—peppered with palpably disquieting images, like “blood bubbles in the mouths of millionaires” and “scores worn into the floors of the halls of dying malls”—are solipsistic rather than didactic, which means Spirit in the Room doesn’t necessarily offer insight on how to best approach mortality or cope with the range of capitalism-imposed ills. But it provides catharsis in its depictions of suffering and destruction, which are so easily brushed under the rug by the media and others who stand to benefit financially from forced smiles and smoke and mirrors. There’s immense power in messages that affirm feelings of discomfort with constant carnage, especially when we’re so disconnected from one another that we may be unaware that others share our feelings.
Like its predecessor, Spirit in the Room is buoyed by an insistent rhythmic pulse and submerged in six-stringed static and trance-like synths, but the album doesn’t feel quite as catchy or emphatic as Unmask Whoever. It lacks the enlivening dynamism and head-banging surge of “Earth Angel” or the consistently seductive, otherworldly darkness of tracks like “Spring Low Life” and “Violent and Vivisect.” Only the pounding industrial dream pop opener “Department of Blood” and ghastly noise rocker “Careful Let’s Sleepwalk”—armed with gnarly guitar plumes that capture their internal strife more viscerally than any other track—match the peaks of Unmask Whoever’s spooky charisma.
The one track that punches above its weight is “Cloud Come Here,” a quiet lo-fi track with Activity’s most intimate and beautiful sequence to date—against acoustic strums, Johnson’s voice reaches unexpected heights as he emits crushing yet subtle melodies recalling Sibylle Baier. Much of Spirit in the Room’s verve comes from Johnson’s vocal creaks and snarls, and his magnetic delivery on “I Saw His Eyes” injects life into the album’s more subdued second half. But the album closes on a forgetful note with “Susan Medical City,” a monotonous track without the textural alchemy in which they fervently excel.
Though the album lacks enough sticky melodies and primal oomph to keep you in its clutches for as long as Unmask Whoever can, Spirit in the Room is still an embarrassment of riches when it comes to tantalizing sonic tones, which seep from practically every orifice of this LP. And their artful summation of life under capitalism—full of corpses hiding in plain sight and anxiety that makes you feel less autonomous than a caged animal—is nothing short of essential.
Spirit in the Room makes me think Activity believe in ghosts—or at least appreciate their symbolism, protecting and haunting our mundane lives, which are in desperate need of the numinous. And unlike the stern technology that watches our every move, the gaze of ghosts can’t be nefariously co-opted in the name of capitalism. As wrinkled talking heads squeal about stock prices and COVID deaths are dubbed acceptable collateral damage, it’s hard not to search for something beyond our earthly realm, and Activity lend a much-needed reprieve.
Lizzie Manno is a former Paste editor, with bylines at Stereogum, Pitchfork, SPIN, Billboard, Flood Magazine, The Recording Academy and Cleveland Scene. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.