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Chapter 5


Boyd King was asleep. This was how he liked to travel. Since he was a small boy, he’d always slept through journeys. Car, boat, aeroplane and now rocket into space. Faced with a long journey his body would just shut down and he’d drift off into a deep sleep. Not for him, the endless staring out of windows at roads or sea or clouds. He closed his eyes in one place and opened them in another.


Just like that.

The rest of his team were strapped into their seats in launch position. Monitors dotted throughout the cabin relayed live footage from the concert. Dry ice flooded over the front rows of the crowd. Huge banks of strobes pulsed in time to the intro music. On the video screens, images of war and famine were juxtaposed with clichés of rock ‘n’ roll decadence.

It was time for The Ontological Agnostics to take to the stage.

Jack Dawes was now late. The money was supposed to be delivered backstage before the band went on. There was a photo opportunity planned with the head of the Dyson Space Centre, but the sound of the crowd made it obvious that that particular ship had sailed.

The last checkpoint had been particularly tedious, but the way ahead looked clear, at least for a few hundred feet. Relishing the freedom of the open road, Jack put his foot down, punching the air as he made it up to second gear.

Another checkpoint loomed into view, but so did another route that seemed to go in the same direction he was heading. Jack just wanted to get the job done now. Get the job done and get out of here. The traffic getting out of here was going to be a nightmare if he stayed much longer. With the next checkpoint still on the horizon, he switched off his headlights and took the turn.

This way seemed better, a bit twisty and turn-y, but there were no more checkpoints and he was still heading vaguely in the right direction. Yeah, this was definitely the right choice. Definitely.

The Ontological Agnostics were a band at the top of their game. In the last few years, their global success had put them in an unprecedented position of power. As well as complete creative freedom, they had the money and resources to do whatever their hearts desired. Their concert tours became more and more extravagant, using the bleeding edge of technology. They were given free rein to experiment with the delivery of their products. Soundbolt technology allowed them to squeeze a triple album’s worth of material into a one second blast. The brain of the receiver of the soundbolt unpacked the four hours of their ambitious concept album, Down The Orinoco, in a single second. Everyone gave it a go. Their ambient soundtrack to a fictitious journey down that great river became the most played album of all-time on the day of its release. The Big Five record companies jumped on the chance and quickly saturated the market with legacy reissues. You could listen to the entire back catalogues of The Beatles, The Stones and The KLF, in the time it previously took to listen to a single Extreme Noise Terror track. It was convenient as fuck and the hipsters were hooked. But there was a downside, because, well, there’s always a fucking downside.

Consider your favourite album. Consider how you feel as the final tracks fades away into nothingness. How do you feel in the moments after A Day In The Life, You Can’t Always Get What You Want or Justified And Ancient? You’ll probably sigh. You’ll probably stretch. And you’ll probably want to go straight back to track one. But with soundbolts it was never as good as the first time. The highest of highs soon became to the lowest of lows. Soundbolt Addicts, or Saddos, soon became a blight on society. Once you’d sampled the highs of those acts with peerless careers, other, less consistent acts couldn’t fill the gap. The first half of the Led Zep soundbolt was a euphoric, Viking battle cry, but the ending was literally a disappointing Coda. Everything decays, particularly the careers of musicians, very few acts go out on a high. The soundbolts of those that did – Nirvana, ABBA, Bowie – left receivers with a crushing sense of melancholy over what could have been and never would be.

Undeterred by the negative new reports, the Big Five pressed on with reissues onto the new format, adding to the feeding frenzy amongst the Saddos. To fill the void left by a 1962-66 Dylan soundbolt, you’d need five Leonard Cohen’s or a dozen Byrds. Before the year was out, the plug was pulled on the soundbolt experiment and the bootleggers swooped in to capture the strung-out, captive market. Soundbolts were tweaked at a microscopic level to be slightly different to the originals. In many cases, the high was almost as good as the first time. Almost. Second, third and fourth generation remasters followed, the differences from the original soundbolts only detectable at a quantum level. But the brain knew, and the legacy of these artists became tarnished, until Pure Trance had the same effect as Hyper Hyper.

The Ontological Agnostics stepped away quietly from the car crash, whistling a happy tune, searching for the future. The future was a car crash.

Unknown to the rest of the band, Anton, the lead singer, had been experimenting with black market soundbolts. By reversing the signal, even the worst careers now ended with the Proustian Rush of a debut single. During a break from recording the follow up to Down The Orinoco, Anton over indulged in these flipbolts and went for a drive along the coast in his Tesla Sparkster. As he drove past a beach party, he was disorientated by the simple joy of a great three-minute pop single.

The next thing he remembered was being cut from the wreckage, but as he slowly pieced things together, he remembered the rush of his Near-Death Experience. The NDE Project was born. In collaboration with The Bavarian KLINIK von LIEBESFREQUENZ, the next album from The OA used experimental sound frequencies to induce NDE sensations. Opinion was divided. The broadsheet press talked of an evolution in the musical experience. The NME described it as “a bit weird” in one of their sponsored articles about smartphones. The album, Almost Dead, inadvertently led to an epidemic of accidental deaths with NDE addicts looking to replicate the highs of the album in increasingly dangerous ways. Coincidentally, the majority of NDE addicts were previously Saddos and so the negative press around both releases was quickly forgotten. Regardless of this newly reinstated even keel, the band knew that a major rethink was required.

During Anton’s extended spell in rehab for both soundbolt and NDE addiction, his therapy involved listening to time-stretched, elongated recordings of Aphex Twin and it was during a twenty-three-hour playback of Avril 14th that Anton had his next creative epiphany – the three-minute pop single.

The single promotes action.

The album encourages lethargy.

The single is a line of speed.

The album is the opiate of the masses.

The single starts revolutions.

The album supresses them.

The single is nights out

With everything up for grabs.

Albums are nights in

Contemplating the achievements of others.

Singles can be a direct line to God.

Albums are the soundtrack to household chores.

The album is dead.

And I dance on its grave.

What followed was to be twenty-three pristine, three-minute blasts of pure ecstasy. Drums pounded. Guitars wailed. Hearts were broken, and lives were saved.

So far, so good. But this was The OA and things were never that simple. Anton envisaged each single as disposable as the next and as a result he developed the next stage in the evolution of music delivery – forced exposure.

With the unlimited funding their success had afforded them, Brown Darren encouraged them to think big. Nothing and no one is more than a few phone calls away. And so, for nearly two years, at a little after 8:20pm on the 23rd of each month, every TV, radio and mobile device was hijacked by the new single from The OA for three glorious minutes. And then it was gone.

Well, not quite. For reasons only Anton knew, he insisted that the hijack took place at 20:23 in each and every time-zone and so a new generation of ultra-dedicated superfans developed, the Storm Chasers. Storm Chasers charted supersonic jets to chase the hijacks around the world, mainlining the pop purity of each single for a maximum of twenty-four times in twenty-four time-zones.

Your standard passenger aeroplane could handle six or seven time-zones and keep up with the broadcasts, but around the world travel was beyond its capabilities. Smaller private jets were similarly restricted by fuel requirements. The ISS adjusted its orbit to receive every transmission. The research centres in Antarctica found a solution by driving around the South Pole at a radius of twenty-three miles.

For your adventurous Storm Chaser, the best solution involved an Ice Breaker circling the North Pole at the edge of the Arctic Circle along with four hundred other superfans.

Any attempts to record the songs ended in vain. The OA used hidden frequencies supplied by their mysterious Bavarian collaborators to render any playback unlistenable and potentially damaging to any device it was played on.

More lo-tech solutions were sought to keep the songs alive, most successfully in the form of small choirs of less than twenty that would attempt to replicate what they had just heard acapella. These groups maintained the performances until they dropped with exhaustion, only to be replaced by more volunteers. In every major city in the world, someone, somewhere was singing the latest song.

But for the casual fan working a nine-to-five, tonight would be only the second time they would hear these songs. Health experts had expressed caution over exactly how much pop joy the average human could handle. Twenty-three blasts of three-minute symphonies may have unpredictable results, but the public bought the tickets anyway. Each song was already imprinted on their souls by the first exposure, it was simply unthinkable that people would want to miss out.

In the end a safety compromise was agreed upon. The set would feature three song segments interspersed by guest speakers. The Ontological Agnostics had a thousand and one good causes and boy did they want people to know about it. The guest speakers would be given three minutes after track three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen, eighteen and twenty-one. Track twenty-two was last month’s single, Bad Vibrations, and after three minutes from Padre Camacho, the band would premier their twenty-third and final single of the set, All You Need Is Love, as the KAOS23 launched behind them.

The set list teased the evening’s special guests who were, to the audience, still a mystery.

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