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Brakence, Punk2 (2020)

Brakence is a singer-songwriter perpetually interrupted by his music. On the Ohio artist’s Punk2, out since March, he writes forlorn, confessional guitar songs that would communicate his discontent clearly if they weren’t jammed with electronic explosions, death wails, and other sonic irritants. Such is life for a sad boy tormented by information overload.

Although Brakence is not the only Gen-Z singer-songwriter to play with noise and distortion, few so gleefully enact the violent collision of forms. His music combines two recent pop tendencies: the playful digital chaos unleashed by experimental pranksters under the banner of “hyperpop” (as in “hyperactive”) and the fusion of emo rock and SoundCloud rap to produce a melancholy, claustrophobic music that prominently features drum machines, plucked acoustic guitars, and the lingering smell of bongwater. This hybrid of hybrids moves awkwardly, unsure whether to speed up or slow down, constantly veering off in different directions. Brakence’s voice bounces between styles with similar impatience; while usually he sings in a sharp emo drawl, at times he breaks into vocoded quavers in the style of Post Malone or soars into a chilly falsetto moan that recalls Bon Iver.

What fascinates about Brakence is how he establishes hyperpop maximalism as a mode rather than a genre. All that whomping noise is a musical strategy like any other, used to conjure mischievous joy by avant-pop groups like 100 Gecs and Black Dresses, but capable of being deployed for any purpose — in this case, disrupting the purity of the unplugged singer-songwriter format. The austerity of acoustic guitar strumming is supposed to imply direct expression. By inserting mess, Brakence instead conveys a garbled passion.

At 27 minutes, Punk2 contains more jerky surprises and hairpin turns than most hour-long albums. Occasionally, irritation outweighs delight: the Bon Iver impressions, in particular, are as cloying as their model. Brakence specializes in frustrated outpourings, like he’s been sulking for a while before finally deciding to vent. Sometimes, there is no better form of catharsis than cranking beats that sound like someone blowing their nose through a computer.

Brakence, Hypnagogia (2018)

“Prozac” starts in a pretty place, as a trebly guitar lick complements his falsetto lilt, but he continues to add bass blasts and creaky distortions, jumping comically between his high and low registers. The song explodes when the guitar crunch takes over and he wails, “For a friend or a foe, won’t be falling in looooooove!” On “fwb,” a shuddering confluence of clicking drum machines, honking bass, and glistening guitars accentuates the camp misery of his singing, before everything speeds up at the end and the guitars start shrieking for air. He plays mixing tricks to establish a sense of sound splintering apart, as if the bass and treble are both turned up unreasonably high. (If you’ve ever busted a speaker while playing with the bass levels, this music may alarm.)

Throughout Punk2, Brakence excels at cramming sounds into airless spaces, the denser the better. As in much synthpop — in which the music’s clean electronic surface represents both the performer’s desire and the object of desire, refracting romantic feelings into an endless hall of mirrors — Brakence’s sonic tantrums reflect his own raging emotions and the disorder of his environment. Some songs seem to have whole other songs buried inside, with everything playing at once — the musical equivalent of multitasking. “Rosier/Punk2” is two songs in one: a weepy acoustic ballad precedes an electric climax, as abrasive keyboards and metallic drum scrapes match his howled pain. Thanks to his self-conscious transition effects, which tie different verses together with the sounds of literal shifting gears and murmured whispers before a sudden reset, “Rosier/Punk2” could include many more than just two songs. Brakence creates a sense of modular composition, assembling songs from dozens of tiny little pieces.

Punk2 rocks thanks to the hysteria of Brakence’s voice. The dorkier he sounds, the deeper the emotion. Contorting himself into plaintive knots, awkwardly stretching his vocals too high or too low, letting his raw vibrato bleed, he joins the tradition of emo crooners who create pathos through excess. Such melodrama expresses his pain more eloquently than the lyrics themselves, which are best at their most indulgently silly (say, “I’m going to hell, you’re going to heaven/it doesn’t negate our holy connection”).

Romantic anxiety haunts Brakence, but he’s even more worried about social disconnection: on “Fuckboy,” he declares “This is sacrilegious how I’m gon fade off IG” (Instagram) before lamenting, “What success? My eyes are on a screen.” After percolating for a couple minutes over a lustrous guitar riff, the song is swept up in a storm of synthesizer clanging and old-school DJ scratching, as he roars to be understood. But his open-ended song structures deny him easy resolution. Sections often don’t repeat, and those that do usually change each time, as when he repeatedly recites the long chorus on “Dropout” (“Dropped out, I was 17”) while the beat shifts around, skips and stutters, moves from loud to quiet and back again.

Connoisseurs of information overload, like 100 Gecs or Twenty One Pilots, sculpt their genre explosions into legible pop structures, so that ostensibly random interruptions are subsumed into a unified sequence. Here, popform is a kind of as redemption; it suggests that all the noise in your head ultimately can be translated into something communicable. By contrast, Brakence’s mess remains a mess, so he’s in much deeper trouble. He’d like to express his frustration more clearly; he longs to just strum his guitar and sing his life. But the wall of noise, preventing him from fully accessing a quintessentially self-expressive form, will not let him be.

Flirting with coherence, he’s stuck in his head but clamoring to get out. Punk2 shines a moving light on the struggle to communicate.

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...

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