The sound of real isolation on The Razor Wire: Answering Machine (1990 – 2000)

Terms like self-isolation and social distancing crept up on us over the last few weeks, and they’re now drummed into our heads. And even if you’re rolling your eyeballs inside out at the state of celebrities’ performative social isolation posts when they’ve got an actual forest around their home, there’s been a general rise in empathy levels.

But real self-isolation and social distancing goes beyond Ellen DeGeneres’ insufferable phone call to John Legend and Christine Tiegen, or Sam Smith’s pathetic display of pretending to cry on an Instagram story.

This new album by MBRS (sound artists Michael Bjella and Rob Skrzynski) explores the isolation and desperation of  people suffocating in the US justice system, with explicit, first-hand accounts of prisoners over a backbone of industrial, noise and electronic dub instrumentals.

The raw material behind The Razor Wire: Answering Machine (1990 – 2000) – Behind the Wall of Incarceration is a CD of phone call recordings of prisoners collected in the 1990s when Bjella worked for a a charity for non-violent offenders called The November Coalition. The Charity set up a phone line to collect calls and share stories in a magazine called The Razor Wire, that was available in prisons in the US.

Michael Bjella (photo by Adam Garcia)

Michael Bjella recalls:  “I believe the recordings where distributed to radio stations and everyone involved with the organisation in some way, but other than that nothing else was ever done. For years they sat in a box in my garage and I would often think of digging them out and making them into something bigger.

“I felt their stories could reach a larger audience if only presented in the right way. During my last move I discovered the CD and set it aside for a future project. I knew through my collaboration work with Robert and the music he was making that it would be a great project for him and I to work on together. We talked about juxtaposing drug culture, music, movies etc with the harsh realities of the drug war found in these recordings and began to work.”

Rob Skrzynski

It’s an overall intentionally bleak listening experience, from the clanking metallic dub and scraping electronics on opening track ‘I Need Him Home,’ to the dark ambient techno pulse of the 10-minute closer ‘Wanted To Know’. The oral histories are distorted by cut-up sampling and loop repetition, and buried under cassette loops, field recordings, found sounds and samples archived by Skrzynski over 18 years, with rhythms and further disjointed edits by Bjella.

On first listen the phone calls weave between the electronic pulses, drones and distorted noise like an abstract vocal line, but after a few listens you’ll soon start to unpack families unravelling, the squalor, sexism and racism in American prisons and  a litany of  wrong turns at crossroads. And because this isn’t a Netflix doc or a 10-part NPR podcast, there’s no follow-up, no where are they now? segment. Just a dusty CD, this intensely melancholic album and a sense that the last 20-odd years weren’t too kind to the people captured on these recordings.

  • The Razor Wire: Answering Machine (1990 – 2000) – Behind the Wall of Incarceration is out now on Natural Sciences.