Resisting the Status Quo

Catalogue’s Modern Delusion

Marseille trio Catalogue’s new album Modern Delusion demonstrates why we need music criticism more than ever.

Protest against pension reform. Paris, 31 January.

From the restless angularity of opener Synchronized through the relentless cover of the Adolescents’ Kids of the Black Hole that concludes the record, Modern Delusion doesn’t make a wrong move.

The liner notes on Bandcamp explain that the band – Emma Amaretto, Eric Trolux, and Bruno Yark-Zymo – put the lockdown of 2020 to good use, developing the material that would become Modern Delusion. And the hard work clearly paid off.

“How come nobody knows about this?” my daughter asks as I watch one of the live videos of Catalogue available on YouTube.

Because she had been studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence when the pandemic exploded, I figured she would be interested to see a band from nearby Marseille.

I have been too focused on the music to notice YouTube’s viewership numbers. But her comment makes me realize just how little attention Catalogue has received.

“It makes me sad,” she continues. “This music is too good to be ignored.”

Yes, I can see how, in a world where success is measured in the tens of thousands, for a band to have under a hundred subscribers to its channel seems depressing.

How is that even possible?

Almost anything can be listened to with a little effort these days, whether on YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify, or some other streaming platform. In theory, this should be a boon to artists from the margins. They can compete with mainstream artists on relatively even terms, instead of languishing in obscurity simply because they aren’t on a record label with clout.

But the opposite is proving true. Because there is a limitless supply of familiar music available this way, the surfeit of possibilities pushes people towards records that they already know. Why listen to a band that calls a long-time favourite to mind when you go straight to the source?

Unfortunately, music that we listen to over and over and over loses its distinctiveness unless we are able to recontextualize it in relation to new material. 

That’s where records like Modern Delusion come in. While the rope-thick bass, echo-veiled vocals, and use of tinny computer beats all hearken back to early post-punk records, Catalogue deftly avoid outright mimicry.

It’s the difference between slavishly following a cookbook recipe and improvising a dish based on a few basic parameters.

My favourite track is probably Houseplant, which weaves a serpentine figure worthy of Sleater-Kinney through the murk of a proto-goth sonic palette, managing the paradoxical feat of sounding simultaneously light and heavy. 

It’s very hard to choose, though. 

Modern Delusion is so consistently good, in fact, that it tempts my heart into making generalisations that my head resists.

I know that any musical genre can produce a masterpiece and that all of them have given us countless duds.

A great hair metal number trumps a desultory indie ballad any day. 

The more I listen to Catalogue, though, the more I start to believe that there’s something special about post-punk.

I suddenly forget how the details they make fresh can seem stale. Even though I know that bands have conjured this sound for politically retrograde ends, I am temporarily convinced that post-punk is an inherently superior genre. 

To be honest, I’m not even sure what Catalogue’s songs are about. The vocals are too submerged in the mix for me to make out, even if they are sung in English.

The liner notes do make it clear that Modern Delusion didn’t simply arise from the difficult circumstances of the pandemic, but self-consciously responded to them:

l’absurdité contemporaine accélère, des slogans fades tentent de masquer la violence alentour, et au milieu de ce délire modern, il reste les adeptes de musique jouée bien fort dans toutes les caves de la planète.

I would like to believe that these words correspond to my own feelings about the pandemic rather than those of someone who regarded the closures as a government conspiracy against freedom. But the textual evidence is ambivalent, potentially supporting either interpretation. 

The truth is that I assume Modern Delusion must articulate a vision compatible with my own because I love the music.

It’s a trap I’ve fallen into many times with music, not to mention literature, art, and film. 

Resistance to the status quo can be grounded in progressive or reactionary politics, not to mention an apolitical refusal to be like everybody else. 

At the same time, it’s usually preferable for artists to discern a problem with the way things are than to pretend everything is fine. 

I applaud Catalogue for doing this much, regardless of any more specific intentions the band may have.

More than that, though, I applaud them for making a record so good that it temporarily overcomes the wariness I’ve acquired the hard way. 

Music critics need to remember that their taste preferences do not correlate with their political preferences.

But they also need to remember the importance of discovering records worth listening to and doing their best to rescue them from neglect. 

Photograph courtesy of Jeanne Menjoulet. Published under a Creative Commons license.