When the end of the world comes, Matthew, a.k.a. XOR, will be hunkered down in his basement studio, fiddling with a Roland JX-3P vintage synthesizer and writing songs for the end times. That’s more or less the recipe for XOR’s self-titled debut album, due out this summer—a brooding, hypnotically catchy set of darkwave gems that would feel equally at home in a goth club or a sci-fi film set in some future dystopia.
“I wanted to start singing again,” says Matthew, who’s spent the past five years as bassist for the goth-tinted post-punk band Secret Shame. “Secret Shame's a guitar-driven band with drums, and I wanted to do something that’s more dancey, more pop, but still had the darker elements.”
The new album from his solo project, XOR, doesn’t skimp on the darker elements. The songwriter describes the record’s central themes as mental health, the loss of loved ones, and the general ennui and anxiety of living in a collapsing empire. “I wasn't like, I'm gonna write a dark album,” Matthew says. “That’s just what came out.”
For years, Matthew has felt caught in an in-between space: entrenched in punk and hardcore subcultures, but personally more into electronic music and synth-pop. This solo album—his first after self-releasing several EPs—provides an outlet for the influences and sounds long simmering inside. These 10 nocturnal slow-burners draw on influences as wide-ranging as The Cure, Björk, Aphex Twin, and Clams Casino, topped off with an insistent drum-machine pulse and glistening synth lines worthy of a John Hughes montage.
At the heart of the record is an unresolved tension between the artist’s unease with technology and his heavy reliance on it, both for music and for work as a software developer. (Matthew also creates open-source, in-browser synthesizers.) After growing up in the epicenter of the Moral Majority and then taking refuge in green anarchist subcultures, Matthew spent several years trying to live off the grid. He was hopping freight trains to get around—sometimes living outside, getting into foraging. He spent one summer at an Ojibwe harvest camp, where members were doing land defense against a mine being built on traditional tribal land.
Eventually, he decided to reenter capitalist society and learn how to write software—“and that's when I started getting back into electronic music,” Matthew says.Cue global pandemic, and a year of societal unraveling.
“For a while, I was just like, ‘The world is collapsing around me! I'm going to prepare for it and go off the grid,’” Matthew recalls. “And then it wasn't? I was like, ‘Alright, time to get that 9-to-5 job, get that mortgage, get my shit together.’ And as I'm doing that, it feels like the world is actually collapsing around me.”
Much of XOR is animated by that familiar sense of psychic dread. Consider the downcast “Yesterday,” a song about pandemic isolation and the weight of a year’s worth of abandoned plans (“We drift in a slumber and try to remember / All the ways we’ve meant to be”), or the deceptively buoyant “Cheer Up,” which takes comfort in the thought that someday we’ll all be dead and the universe will reach a cold stasis. Then there’s the hooky gloom of “Saturn Returns,” which thoughtfully addresses the ambivalence of getting older in an uncertain world.
With its gurgling synths and new wave flourishes, “Tooth Worms” reckons with historical ignorance (the title alludes to the once-common belief that tooth aches were caused by worms) and addresses the grim reality of living in a collapsing empire. But there is still a glimmer of hope: “After disasters as old as tomes / In the morning the horizon glows,” Matthew croons.
Naturally, XOR is a quarantine project, conceived and recorded entirely in the musician’s home outside Asheville, North Carolina, during a year of isolation. After previously releasing music under the name Fuck Jamz—“which was not easy to put on flyers,” Matthew laughs—he rechristened the project XOR (pronounced “ex or”), borrowing the name from a type of digital logic gate. He began writing songs near the start of lockdown, initially planning a single and then realizing he’d have enough for a full album.
The songs began flowing, and Matthew clocked them down in his makeshift home studio. There’s an Ableton console, a guitar, some analog synths (a Behringer Model D, a Roland JX-3P, a Novation Peak). “A lot of what I listen to in music is the timbres and beats,” Matthew says. “I think that's why I've started nerding out on synths so hard: the control I have for shaping each sound and making each song unique.”
The best songs on XOR are bathed in a warm melancholy glow, but brightened by Matthew’s melodic vocals and taut, pulsing tempos. Often, he’ll start humming a melody while walking his dog around the forest near his home, then return to the studio to build a song around it. His house is nestled in the woods—you have to drive down a small state highway, then follow a dirt road up a mountain to get there—and while electronic music is commonly associated with grimy urban clubs, he’s quick to mention how the natural environment influenced these melodies and synth patches.
Matthew plans to perform the XOR material live later this year, or whenever live music safely returns. In the meantime, he’s set a goal to record and release one cover song each month: In January, he put out a darkwave rendition of AFI’s “God Called in Sick Today,” and in February, he made New Order’s “Temptation” his own.
As ever, the reference points are eclectic, and music remains a bulwark against despair. “A lot of the album's kind of like, the world's declining, and maybe things aren't gonna go back to normal,” Matthew says. But out of the collapse, new worlds—and some pretty stellar synth patches—can be built.