Keeping Score: Annihilation & Arca

BY KATHERINE ANDREWS //

At the beginning of quarantine, I found myself gravitating towards the juicy, campy, and albeit oftentimes problematic movies of 50s sci-fi. They’re predictable — something mysterious happens, 40 minutes of dialogue, and then 15 minutes of kitschy special effects and action. It’s a digestible 70 minutes of escapism. (If I zone out, I’m probably thinking about the poster from The Wasp Woman (1959)). When it comes to their sounds and scores though, many lack the sort of experimental and imaginativeness that make later sci-fi soundtracks some of my favorite to revisit. At their best, these scores can shape the world of the movie by blending the familiar into something atmospheric, dark, and a little experimental. 

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Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score for the 2018 movie, Annihilation, is a hot example of this. The world that Salisbury and Barrow create takes what is almost recognizable–voice, orchestra–and bends it into something electronic and completely different. “The Alien”, which is Annihilation’s climax, even is a world of its own. I also think that Arca’s 2013 mixtape, &&&&&, does that same world building, making for a dark and electronic album-movie pairing. 

Warning: some spoilers for Annihilation. Duh. 

Annihilation opens with Lena (Natalie Portman) seated, wearing starchy white scrubs, in an observation room. Slowly, men in full hazmat suits ask her simple questions about her team, their food, and how long they were inside. Lena answers all with confusion and that she does not recall. The man’s last question, “then what do you know?” lingers.

The movie continues by following Lena as she attempts to track down what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), after he abruptly left on a secret military mission and returned despondent and confused a year later with no explanation. Both Kane and Lena are taken to Area X, a research and military facility designated to monitor and explore what is known as the shimmer. Following in Kane’s footsteps, Lena, along with a team of other female scientists, enter with the hopes of reaching the lighthouse, which is the source of the mysterious shimmer. Battling weird, mutated creatures and their own sanity, the shimmer is both beautiful and eerie, with time passing without them knowing what has even happened. 

World making steps beyond atmosphere and narrative to say who we are and what is possible–for Annihilation who we are is exactly the issue. In the realm of music, anything experimental is about testing what is possible with sound. 

Originally released on soundcloud as one long track, &&&&& is dark, dense, and absolutely delicious. Arca, who has leant her production expertise to the likes of Kanye West, Bjork, and FKA Twigs, here digs into a style of production that teeters on the edge of what feels like explosive collapse. The record draws on shrieking synths and hip hop samples to balance deep and almost gothy bass. 

The mixtape, recently released on Spotify, is broken down into 14 tracks. “Fossil”,“Coin”, and “DM True” are some of my favorite moments. Three tracks in, “Fossil” builds on an oscillating, manipulated voice that’s intense, foggy, and not unlike the rises and falls that happen throughout Salisbury and Barrow’s score for Annihilation. “Coin” is darker, drawing on a ghosty baseline and vocalization. The otherwise melodic production breaks into a quicker combination of samples and synth on “DM True”. Overall &&&&& feels very sci-fi, but the vocal manipulation on “Waste” is unintelligible in a way that makes it sound like it’s coming from a very cool alien. 

Both Annihilation and &&&&& fantastically blur what is human and otherworldly. They’re escapism to the n-th degree, and welcome reimaginations of what and who we are when the real world feels like a bit too much. 

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