Z Wolf takes a dark turn into 'Night City'

Andy Downing
Z Wolf

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, it imploded plans for an expansive tour that Damn the Witch Siren had started to sketch out in support of its most recent album,White Magic, which the duo released in April as the reality of life amid COVID-19 was only beginning to settle in.

“We were sort of stuck sitting on our hands,” said Z Wolf, who is joined in the electro-pop duo by bandmate/partner Bobbi Kitten. “We generally have most of our year planned out ahead of time, and we were in the throes of doing that when this happened. And that’s been a weird, uncomfortable thing for us, because we like to know what we’re going to be doing, and now we don’t. It’s been kind of a day-to-day thing trying to figure out what’s next.”

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Amid stay-at-home orders, though, creating remained a constant, with Wolf’s solo work gradually taking a more insular, introverted turn. Inspired by the forthcoming video gameCyberpunk 2077, the musician started to craft coldly futuristic, largely instrumental electronic tracks that he described as purposely devoid of humanity. “I didn’t want this music to be personal, or to make anyone feel anything terribly emotional,” said Wolf of new solo album Night City, which releases digitally on Friday, Oct. 30. “It’s just abrasive, foreboding music. … I feel tense, and the world feels tense, and I wanted to abstractly convey that idea with the music.”

As a result, only a handful of album tracks include vocals, and even those on which Wolf sings, his voice is largely warped and distorted, the musician coming across like a somber, unintelligible robot. Indeed, those rare times vocals are audible in the mix, the words tend to speak to greater atrocities, heightening the sense of horror in the music. Witness the digitized voice repeating “something is missing” near the album’s midpoint, the answer to which lies in the song’s gruesome title: “Kabuki Market (Body Parts).”

“A couple of years ago, I don’t think I would have even dreamed about making music like this, because there are hardly any lyrics and it’s not really about me. … It feels very introverted and isolated and cold,” said Wolf. “I guess it’s just part of my response to living my life on the internet now and feeling torn apart from everything and everyone. … It’s cold, abrasive, digital stuff, and it makes me think a lot about the relationship between man and machine, which we’re experiencing more now than ever.”

When Wolf started on the songs that would becomeNight City, however, his aims were purely escapist. At the time, the musician said he was exhausted by the news cycle and working to control his anxiety with new medication. After viewing a trailer forCyberpunk 2077, he thrust himself into the video game’s digital world as a way to avoid lingering on current headlines. “This game gave me an outlet to think of something else for a bit,” Wolf said. 

But only for a bit, unfortunately, as both the pervasive heaviness of modern times and the themes present in the game, which envisions America decades in the future as a failed superpower governed by corporations, colluded to draw Wolf back to reality.

“Basically, [the game presents] this horrifying, dystopian nightmare, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized [its creator] was telling us, ‘Watch out. If you’re not careful about technology, and if you don’t keep these powers in check, this is what’s going to happen,” Wolf said. “I wasn’t planning to go off on a tangent about everything, but I guess I have to, because that’s the theme [of the record] to me.

"This shit-show we’re living in now, this weird circus sideshow, is a pale imitation of what America was when we were growing up. … I was never really patriotic, but when we were kids it felt like there was this sense of security. It always felt like America would always be number one, and we’d never be dealing with the things we’re dealing with now. I really felt this weird sense of invincibility. But now, and especially this year, it feels like we’ve fallen so far from what we once were, which is just sort of terrifying. Not to be a bummer.”