Black And White
Few bands would be capable of spreading a single narrative across seven albums and nearly twenty years…or at least capable of maintaining any sort of audience through such an exercise. Yet mind.in.a.box are no ordinary band, with an audience that has followed them not only through the twists and turns of their records’ larger story, but through musical shifts which have found them moving from a nominally futurepop-inspired cyber sound to ever more bombastic and prog-influenced sounds, which Black And White revels in to both its benefit and detriment.
As longtime m.i.a.b. fans know, the narrative threading records from 2004’s Lost Alone forward has built to an epic scale, with Black And White depicting the final (?) confrontation between Black, apostate of the Illuminati-esque Agency and White, its head who seeks Demiurge-like control over both the material world and the mysterious Dreamweb wherein music, love, and truth appear as they actually are (check out Synthpop Fanatic’s recent recap of the whole saga for more info). mind.in.a.box’s musical style has become ever-more grandiose over the last decade to suit this Platonic quest for truth and reality, and Black And White finds Stefan Poiss and his m.i.a.b. collaborators availing themselves of every opportunity to underline the story with as much musical flourish as possible.
After a lengthy table setting track, the spacey and spiralling synths of “Lost And Alone” reach up to wide plateaus with Poiss’ vocals (in all of their variously digitally pitched guises) reflecting on all of Black’s challenges and steeling him and his comrades for their next one. Later, the slow lope of “Sometimes Never” builds towards the sort of keytar-styled solos the band first experimented with back on Crossroads. It’s a record showcasing mind.in.a.box at their most ambitious. The downside of these extravagances is that with little relief from them apart from minimalist spoken word segues, the record’s maximalism can be overwhelming, especially with the album punching in at a whopping 74 minutes. While those who’ve been waiting years to learn how Black and White’s conflict will resolve will no doubt welcome such excess, newcomers (or those checking in with the band for the first time since Dreamweb, perhaps) are likely to find this all a bit extravagant. Moments like the savvy synthpop-rocker “New Wave Propaganda” are the exception, offering self-contained blasts of mind.in.a.box’s neon-hued charm.
One subject which must be taken up with regards to Black And White‘s lyrics and story is how eerily its depiction of the Agency’s authoritarian dystopia dovetails with far-right and anti-vax conspiracies concerning “The Great Reset”, microchipped vaccines, and all of the other horseshit we’ve all had to endure in recent years, despite pretty much all governments agreeing to return to business as usual as if COVID had never happened well over a year ago. On the one hand, it’s easy to see how those various conspiracies have tapped into the same heroic narrative of fighting against unjust authority which science fiction narratives have been using since day one (see The Matrix films or Deus Ex games for similar deployments) and to chalk up Black And White‘s resonances with said conspiracies to that shared lineage. However, lines like “medication is mandatory…refusal may result in the loss of your rights” within the context of “the reset of society” are bound to raise some eyebrows.
So, how to parse this? There are at least three possibilities. First, the long-running theme of the Agency using various forms of mind control to maintain its power may simply have accidentally coincided with more contemporary real-world paranoia. Second, recognizing an opportunity to draw perceived parallels with recent events, lyricist Josh Kreger has thrown these allusions in simply to get a chuckle or a knowing nod with relatively apolitical intent. Third, the dog whistles and their political significance – such as praising Black’s armed storming of the Agency’s headquarters as the act of “The Insurrectionist” – are wholly intentional, whether or not Poiss & co. are aware of how North American listeners might interpret the latter verbiage or agree that vaccines are part of a (clearly woefully inept) international conspiracy akin to the machinations of the villainous Agency. Until Poiss or Kreger offer comment, that interpretation must be left to the listener.
It might be tempting to dismiss these questions as hand-wringing or much ado about the trivialities of lyrics (though holding to the latter is to dismiss mind.in.a.box’s work on the whole – if its substance is of no concern, then why discuss or even listen to it?). But narratives of struggle and conflict don’t exist in a vacuum, and have tractable effects upon the larger zeitgeist (not to mention the sense of disappointment some long-time m.i.a.b. fans are likely to feel at the possibility of a story they’ve invested decades in being paid off in support for January 6ers). If this is simply a case of that zeitgeist having shifted since mind.in.a.box began this work in 2004, so be it, but Black And White has been released in the here and now. Musically, it serves as a capstone or apotheosis of the ambitions mind.in.a.box have been slowly cultivating for years, but thematically it raises some troubling real-world questions even as it seeks to resolve many of its fictional ones.