Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Real Enemies
(New Amsterdam Records. Review by John L. Walters)
If you are looking for an album that evokes the current year in all its terrible intensity, look no further than Real Enemies. Listen to it in ten years’ time and see if you agree (if we’re still here in 2026). Though Darcy James Argue’s suite was premiered last year as a multimedia extravaganza, the ambitious, multi-layered sound of the album version anticipates all the paranoia and mendacious ‘post-fact’ discourse that fills our news outlets in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ referendum and the flirtation with fascism in the fearful run-up to the US Presidential Election.
Argue is a composer who stands head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries for the inventiveness, audacity and ambition of his compositions. And he has the musical skill and bandleading authority to back it all up. His debut, Infernal Machines, wasn’t just promising, it over-delivered, full of great ideas and arrangements, performed by a big band whose combination of musicality and youthful exuberance made you want to cheer. As many of us who witnessed their London Jazz Festival debut in 2010 did.
Brooklyn Babylon (reviewed) (2013) was a sprawling epic made in collaboration with comic book artist Danijel Žeželj, which I saw at the 2013 Holland Festival (LINK) . Now we have Real Enemies, the ‘difficult third album’, which began as collaboration with director/writer Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini. Real Enemies tackles conspiracy theories and facts, and some aspects of the dark paranoia that has run through political discourse in postwar times. Think Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation, smartly edited and with dynamite underscore.
Argue, credited as ‘composer, conductor, ringleader’, shows his musical hand immediately with a liner note dedication to ‘Michael Small and David Shire, architects of the sound of conspiracy’. Small soundtracked Klute and The Parallax View; Shire scored The Conversation and All The President’s Men, a movie (enhanced by minimal slabs of Mike Gibbs-like brass clusters) that still feels relevant more than 40 years since Nixon was impeached.
Accordingly, Real Enemies’ thirteen tracks have titles that sound like DVD chapter headers: Trust No One, The Hidden Hand, Apocalypse Is A Process, and so on, and the atmospheric soundscape is stoked to smoking point with the use of bugged phone calls, field recordings, radio/TV soundbites and other effects, with narrator James Urbaniak on the final two tracks. Fear not, this isn’t a soundtrack searching for a movie, but a full blooded big band jazz album, embellished by fine solos from the Secret Society repertory company: Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Ryan Keberle (trombone), Sam Sadigursky (tenor sax, clarinet) and many more. Sebastian Noelle (gtr), Adam Birnbaum (keys), Matt Clohesy (bass) and Jon Wikan (drums) are crucial to the success of Argue’s vision. While doing everything a big band rhythm section needs to do, they sound utterly contemporary in terms of sounds and beats and rhythmic nuances.
Urbaniak’s narrative is taken from contain texts by Isaac Butler, Richard Hofstadter (author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics) and Kathryn S. Olmsted, whose book Real Enemies provided Argue with the title of his masterwork. The writing is so powerful and effective I can see why Argue left most of it to the closing minutes of the album. After these ideas have been framed and implied by music and spoken-word collages we get them articulated in cold hard prose, and the effect is bracing. ‘Time is forever running out,’ states the narration in the penultimate track Who Do You Trust?, talking about the way the ‘paranoid style’ plays to those who ‘wish us ill’, encouraged by genuine facts, for instance: ‘There really was a secret FBI, within the FBI, dedicated to destroying the American Left.’ Sound familiar?
You Are Here, the closing track, defines the album’s themes in words spoken over gorgeously astringent ensemble writing: ‘When citizens cannot trust their government to tell the truth, they become more susceptible to that dread disease, conspiracism … The result is a profoundly weakened polity, with fewer citizens voting, and more problems left unaddressed for a future generation.’
Real Enemies delivers an articulate riposte to conspiracy theorists: ‘We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer since he is afflicted not only by reality, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies, as well. He has little real hope that his evidence will convince a hostile world. His efforts to amass it have rather the quality of a defensive act, which shuts off his receptive apparatus … he has all the evidence he needs. He is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.’ And at this moment, the music cuts off.
Did I imply this was a ‘difficult’ album? It’s not, though repeated listening is recommended if you wish to take in all the dense harmonies, oblique structures and impassioned improvisations. Noelle (on Trust No One) and trombonist Mike Fahie (on Casus Belli) express the mood of Real Enemies with particular relish. And Argue writes great riffs and tunes: check out the funky Dark Alliance. The subject matter is difficult. One could say that political paranoia is a result of widespread reluctance to deal with human complexity, preferring to blame secret societies, conspiracies, the ‘mainstream media’ and so on. If we were prepared to accept difficult situations head on, might we have a better, more open society? As an extended musical articulation – intellectual and visceral – of these ideas, Argue’s Real Enemies is a mind-blowing example of truly great, era-defining jazz composition, and a contender for album of the year.