"We will not retreat. This band is unstoppable!" These sampled words, which come at the peak of "Retreat! Retreat!," an anthemic song by the instrumental post-rock band 65daysofstatic, have long been taken as a rallying cry by fans during their propulsive live gigs. The Sheffield-based quartet's latest project takes that statement of intent to heart: it is literally unstoppable.
Well, almost. Wreckage Systems is a collection of several dozen algorithmic systems which have been playing continuously—barring the occasional crash—since March 2021. These systems— essentially chunks of music-generating code called things like "Mumble Prime" and "Harp Collateral"—generate everything from soothing ambient soundscapes to spiky drum 'n' bass workouts, interspersed with occasional robotically voiced "adverts." There aren't any tracks, as such: each system simply plays until its time is up, then passes the baton to the next.
On the project's YouTube channel, a lo-fi screen displays minimal information about the current system above a scrolling chyron displaying enigmatic messages. Its "devblog" is full of updates that mix nerdy music-making details with droll peeks at life behind the scenes at 65Labs, the sprawling (and largely fictitious) global operation of technicians, bots and servers that keeps the machines running. The overall effect is of a retro dystopia: Spotify in the world of Blade Runner.
"We've built this kind of deliberate myth about it—a lot of the blog posts and so on are in character," says band member Paul Wolinski. "But at the same time, they're not at all consistent. Obviously, no one really believes it so it's sort of like theatre, a performance, but it's not a one-way thing for us. We're encouraging everyone to go along with it." Fans on the project's Discord seem happy to play along, riffing on the idea of a semi-sentient machine ecosystem, fueled by episodes such as a glitch in May when multiple systems started playing simultaneously to create a "relentless 56-minute slab of algo-hyper-noise."
Wreckage Systems isn't 65daysofstatic's first foray into endless music. From their origins in post-rock, their output has steadily become more electronic and experimental. Forays into danceable techno and film scoring eventually led to a commission in 2013 for the soundtrack to the universe simulator No Man's Sky—or more accurately, an infinite array of soundtracks, since the game's USP is its never-ending supply of procedurally generated planets to explore.
To meet that challenge, the band recorded both a conventional soundtrack album and hours of related audio snippets and cues that could be reassembled by the game engine to resonate with the player's environment and actions. That led to the 2018 Decomposition Theory series of concerts, in which audio and visuals were partially generated on the fly each night, with unpredictable results—an approach more akin to the algo-rave and live-coding scenes than to their previous live sets—and then to replicr, 2019, an album's worth of chilly, heavily computational snippets.
When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, 65daysofstatic, like most bands, found themselves unable to record or tour in person. Unlike most, they were already equipped with algorithms for making new 65daysofstatic music—some of them earmarked for a project to "broadcast" the results to the world. So while releasing compilations of unreleased tracks under a Patreon-supported subscription project, A Year of Wreckage, they also started working on what would become Wreckage Systems.
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They used Wwise, an audio engine primarily intended for managing interactive sounds in games, to turn raw loops, sounds, and melodies into the "systems" which generate music. Those systems are summoned in turn by a master control program built in the games engine Unity, according to logic set by the band. The whole thing is packaged as an app running on a server "somewhere near Dublin", which streams the results to the outside world.
What the outside world is intended to make of it is an open question. Wreckage Systems isn't meant to be a digital simulacrum of the band 65daysofstatic, which still very much exists: they continue to tour and release records, including compiling the Wreckage Systems output into more conventional EPs. "I get to be in a band, and I get to put out records and play shows—that's fantastic. But why is that all that bands are expected to do?" says Wolinski. For him, Wreckage Systems is partly an attempt to explore how musicians can make meaningful work at a time when automation promises an infinite supply of sounds, some of which will be accepted as music and others not.
Wolinski points to a distinction between "bad" and "true" infinity, inspired by the German philosopher Georg Hegel. "Bad" infinity is endless and tireless—it simply goes on forever. That's a description that could be applied (though Wolinski doesn't) to many bot-based music systems, particularly those which use machine learning to churn out never-ending pastiches of, say, death metal or Beethoven. Remarkable though that is, Wolinski contends that entirely automated music generation is empty of the meaning given to it by the composers and listeners; Wreckage Systems makes no use of it.
"True" infinity, on the other hand, is also endless—but presented in ways that humans can relate to. In Wreckage Systems sounds are selected and systems constructed to achieve the band members' desired musical effects. But once they are up and running, it's up to listeners to decide exactly what they are listening to, and how they listen to it—whether it's for background music or active listening, whether they find favorite systems or patterns, or prefer to have it packaged up for them by the band. Their engagement is crucial to keeping the project going, since it's funded entirely by Patreon subscribers.
More bands should be undertaking such experiments, says Wolinski, in the search for a viable 21st century alternative to the 20th century's industrialized ways of making and distributing music. "Pop music's only about 70 or 80 years old," says Wolinski. "It shouldn't just have to be albums and songs forever. Why aren't people doing more interesting things by now? The songs themselves, the vibrating speakers, that's such a small part of the experience of music. All of the interesting meaning comes from social relations and interactions: that's where music exists. It doesn't have to be trapped in these boring little templates."
Wolinski hopes 65daysofstatic will themselves experiment with more new templates under the 65Labs banner. As for Wreckage Systems: is it really going to run forever, be allowed to fade away, or go out in some sort of grand finale? "I have absolutely no idea," laughs Wolinski. "There's plenty of material to feed into the stream. It would be great to just keep it going, but living with it for the rest of our lives might be a bit much." Only time will tell if this band really is unstoppable.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of WIRED UK magazine.