Traversing the psychedelic soundscapes of Black Mirror’s ‘Bandersnatch’…
“It’s got different endings to the game, depending on if you’re on 1 or 2 player. It was kinda the first game to do that.”
Davis, San Junipero, Black Mirror, 2016
[Warning: contains spoilers] By this stage, pretty much anyone with a fondness for dystopian psychological thrillers and/or the ZX Spectrum, will have sat through Bandersnatch, the latest offering from Black Mirror, in which a 1980s game designer, Stefan, is plunged into an interactive nightmare, with the viewer controlling his every move.
The episode is also awash with 80s music references – it opens with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, one of the endings is accompanied by Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (we won’t tell you which one!), and at one point, Stefan is given the option to listen to either Now That’s What I call Music 2 or Thompson Twins, before either Eurythmics Here Comes The Rain Again or the Twins’ Hold Me Now blares from speakers.
We also like the subtle video game reference blasting out of the headphones of Tuckersoft employee Colin Ritman, Depeche Mode’s New Life… very clever. [CLICK HERE to check out an exclusive Spotify playlist of tracks from Colin’s favourite albums] 🙂
But for those of a more, ahem, ‘experimental’ musical persuasion, you will know that a turning point in the episode occurs when Stefan walks into his local WH Smith and is presented with the choice of buying two albums, Isao Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle, and Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra.
First, a quick note on both artists: Tomita, who died in 2016, was an early pioneer of ambient electronics and synth pop, famous for his electronic reworkings of Ravel’s Bolero and Holst’s Planets Suite. Tangerine Dream, meanwhile, are considered arguably the leading proponents of the prog-cum-electronica genre known as Krautrock (sorry, Can fans). Founded by the late Edgar Froesse in 1967, the group are still touring; in fact, they play the UK this March.
So far, so good. But are the albums Stefan is urged to select any good, and what, if any significance do they have to the Black Mirror universe (or should that be multiverse)?
First, The Bermuda Triangle, which was released in 1978 – the very name alone hints at how ‘lost’ Bandersnatch protagonist Stefan is throughout the episode.
Just like Stefan on his first LSD trip, this one is a hard nut to crack. It’s permeated with recognisable sounds – we’re pretty sure that’s an old-school modem booting up at 00:57 (but how?), while mid way through, there’s a distinct homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It also pays tribute to the mysteries of space and time, with track titles like Venus In A Space Uniform Shining In Fluorescent Light and The Dazzling Cylinder That Crashed In Tunguska, Siberia.
The Bermuda Triangle is best listened to as a whole, singular piece – while there are ‘tracks’, such is the ebb and flow of sine waves and choral patterns that it appears to have no beginning and no end (like the episode itself?). According to Discogs user sy1975, Sasha and John Digweed used samples of this album on their breakthrough Renaissance Mix in 1994, which earns it a bonus point in our eyes.
Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, meanwhile, which 909originals first discovered in a student digs some time back – is an understated masterpiece, a weaving ambient soundscape that celebrates its 45th birthday next month (released in February 1974).
Regularly included in ‘albums you must listen to before you Bandersnatch’-style lists, Mark J. Prendergast, the author of Ambient Century, describes the opening track, Phaedra, thus, “At over 17 minutes, it conveyed feelings of the cosmos, of giant suns exploding, of huge ocean movements, of mythological lands, of eddies and drifts. Layer upon layer of futuristic sounds piled one on top of the other until the whole thing climaxes in some interstellar void.”
In terms of Bandersnatch ‘nudges’, meanwhile, the album also includes tracks named Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares, and Movements of a Visionary – surely a reference to Stefan as he navigates the Netflix-powered matrix (the latter refers to choosing Sugar Puffs at the start, obviously).
So, two experimental masterpieces then. Given that Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker was seven years old when Phaedra came out, and still a teenager when The Bermuda Triangle was unveiled, we presume he first encountered both of them during his student years (again a bit like Stefan).
Black Mirror is renowned for its Easter Eggs, and should either Tomita or Tangerine Dream’s works contain any references to other episodes, we’d love to get your thoughts.
With that in mind, it’s probably best to leave the last word on this to Colin (right before he throws himself off his apartment balcony): “People thinks there’s one reality, but there’s loads of them, all snaking off, like roots. And what we do on one path affects what happens on the other paths. Time is a construct. People think you can’t go back and change things, but you can, that’s what flashbacks are, they’re invitations to go back and make different choices. When you make a decision, you think it’s you doing it, but it’s not. It’s the spirit out there that’s connected to our world that decides what we do and we just have to go along for the ride. Mirrors let you move through time. The government monitors people, they pay people to be you relatives and they put drugs in your food and they film you.
“There’s messages in every game. Like Pac-Man. Do you know what PAC stands for? P-A-C: “program and control.” He’s Program and Control Man the whole things a metaphor, he thinks he’s got free will but really he’s trapped in a maze, in a system, all he can do is consume, he’s pursued by demons that are probably just in his own head, and even if he does manage to escape by slipping out one side of the maze, what happens? He comes right back in the other side.
“People think it’s a happy game, it’s not a happy game, it’s a fucking nightmare world and the worst thing is it’s real and we live in it.”