Escape Through Lunacy: Philadelphia’s Dark Music Pioneer Releases New Album

Forever wars engulf entire regions of the globe. The braindead zombies of fascism are rising from the grave and again infecting political life with their noxious bite. Scientists predict we have less than 20 years to avert a worldwide climate apocalypse. In short, the world as we know it is coming to an end.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Lunacy is a project about “being isolated in the world as it is, as we know it, and the demise of that world.” As with the outside world, a thread of apocalypticism runs through the project. The video for their song “Nail in the Wire” features footage of natural disasters colliding and dissolving and melting and decaying into the image of the shrouded figure behind Lunacy. The garbled vocals on all of their songs hint at the hellfire sermon of a preacher struggling to break through radio static on an AM station late at night. The symbols and sounds of End Times permeate all aspects of the project, but there’s something entirely different about Lunacy’s vision of a world in crisis, because the goal isn’t prognostication.

“The music is a being and entity itself, in a world that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Lunacy. “There are shadows and things from the past, like mindwarps that take you to what used to be, but then all of a sudden there’s this world that exists where there’s nothing there.”

Lunacy is a project about the apocalypse in the sense that it’s about creating portals into other worlds, to escape one that’s already dead.

On a cold night in late September, 20-some-odd people were shepherded into pews in the side chapel of the First Unitarian Church. Women passed out lit candles as a cloud of incense drifted over the congregants. Some seemed amused by the ritual while others looked around the room for guidance. Standing in front of the crowd, gesticulating wildly in mid-sermon, was Lunacy. It’s hard to know if anyone knew what — or whom — had been invoked that night because Lunacy’s vocals were near unintelligible, a mixture of structureless chanting and heavy reverb, but that’s precisely the point.

After their set had ended, Lunacy, still clad in a black mask, spoke of a desire to escape definition. “I don’t put lyrics on the releases because it’s all up for interpretation. If you have something written, someone will read it as that,” they said. Lunacy described their vocals as being an extension of the music, which they view as a kind of energy that can be used to transport listeners to other places and even new worlds. They avoid traditional song structures and clean, clear vocals as a way of creating something that exists outside of genre and time itself.

Their upcoming release, Just the Beginning, makes explicit that point. Each song is a portal to sonic landscapes unrecognizable to most modern listeners, easily passing through different genres and styles until settling on something altogether alien. “Road to Foil” borrows elements from strains of post-industrial music to craft a deceptively harsh experience, one in which you can wade out into shallow pools of watery synths before realizing you’re being dragged out to sea by a riptide of feedback. Similarly, “Sediment” is both bracing and painful, like trudging through thickets of dense noise to reach a pilgrimage site.

This devotion to charting unexplored territory hasn’t gone unnoticed. Fellow weird travelers like Roy Montgomery, of The Pin Group and Dadamah, have offered praise for Lunacy’s quantum leaps. In the liner notes to 2016’s Resurgence of Compulsion, Montgomery wrote, “This is the sound of someone pulling space back to earth. This is a sonic walk-through of landscapes that no longer exist. This is the drip of electronic water on memories of something deep in rooms without a view. Echoes of human activity resonating in the factory chapel, the walls and sentiments covered with moss.”

That “drip of electronic water on memories” is pervasive throughout both that EP and Just the Beginning. Songs like “Beneath the Fold” and “Not in the Sun” recall fragments of other artists and music, providing the listener with a sense of nostalgia for people and sounds that exist somewhere out in the world, but not in this combination or context. Lunacy uses those half-remembered ideas to provoke the listener into piecing those fragments together into something new and unreal. And album closer “The Cove” pulses with the energy of dystopian science-fiction films re-cut as a stuttering onslaught of spaceships attacking Earth while disembodied voices moan in the background. It has the effect of conjuring visions of a never-ending apocalypse; suffering caught in an endless loop, fear always building and never finding release.

Escape as a goal might seem self-defeating. Maybe if you stay in this world you can save it. But that mindset betrays a lack of understanding about the apocalypse. You can’t escape armageddon because there is always another waiting just over the horizon. You can only prepare and hope for a little more time.

Lunacy is aware of this conundrum. Physical releases of their music are important to the continued existence of the project because they offer others the possibility of escape. They’re left behind for those in the world now, but more importantly, for those survivors left after the collapse. “This project is writing itself, writing its own world,” Lunacy said. “A reason why things are on cassette [or vinyl] is the fact that it’s not digitized. If someone finds my tapes, they find the actual tapes of my recordings and have to figure out how to listen to it. Who knows if you can plug something in and listen to it or not? You have to find a tape player that still works.”

If the End Times are truly here, don’t expect to queue up your favorite Spotify playlist for much longer. If you want to escape, you’ll need batteries, a record player, and a copy of Just Beginning.

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Rob Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Diabolique Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Philadelphia City Paper, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.
Rob Skvarla
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