Have Robot Dog, Will Travel … striving to describe the difficulties of the human condition in an age of technology and technocratic values

Stephanie Pan, Have Robot Dog, Will Travel – A Song Cycle for the Technological Age, Netherlands, ARTEk, ART004 CD (2018)

Already a very seasoned traveller both physically and in her career, Dutch-based US singer / musician / performance artist Stephanie Pan mixes experimental art pop, gritty drone loops and beats, and noisy glitchy electronics with her own distinct style of extreme virtuoso singing (in part based on her training in bel canto singing) and beautiful melodies in this recent release. The result is a recording that is at once very intimate and personal, and at the same time highly abstract and not a little remote and a bit flat at times. There may be a theme here about the difficulties of communication in a world where the natural and the organic, however imperfect they are in an environment where the digital and the technocratic strive for uniform perfection, may well be the best and perhaps only tools we have if we are not to succumb completely to the restrictions of our environment and become no more than flesh-and-blood robots.

The music often has the quality of toy-like delicacy, to the extent of being overwhelmed by Pan’s singing and glossolalia, and at any moment in the recording it could crack and fall into tiny shards of pixie mirror dust. Pan’s own singing is clear, beautiful and precise – even when singing gibberish or keening at the top of her range, her tones never sound out of place or out of tune – and there is a quality of lushness and longing present as well. The playfulness of Iva Bittova and the prophet-in-the-wilderness authority of Diamanda Galas may not be present, and perhaps Pan might sound a little bland in comparison with those singers but I’m sure she will in due time find her own distinct voice that does not need to rely too much on technical precision. There are occasions on the album where Pan’s singing has a melancholy quality that might be suited for singing blues music.

Most songs are very good to the extent that picking out the best is very much a matter of personal music preferences. The music ranges from crystal-clear and delicate on tracks like “Song for Words Unsaid” to lush and droning on the title track and “Beast”. Its low-key nature hides layers of mysterious tone loops, sinister beats and moods ambiguous and ambivalent in nature. As the music progresses, the mood seems to darken and even Pan’s singing becomes less reassuring and more an uncertain beam of light in a world of encroaching shadow. The final track “Ron Adams” suggests a retreat into a fantasy carnival world where the human desire for connection is overrun by more and more layers of digital information that shape and dictate the direction and focus of that desire.

Technically this is a very beautiful and quite lush album, but it does have the quality of a work in search of something greater than itself and not able to grasp it. Perhaps this is due to the album’s ambition in portraying the difficulties of the human condition in a society governed increasingly by technology and technocratic values. I have a feeling a lot more travelling is in order for the artist.