Omniflux’s debut album, Aquarelle, is a woozily seductive trip-hop Trojan horse. Amidst its throbbing grooves, swaths of cultured electronica and heady melodies lurk calls to arms against the collective coma of marketing-induced materialism that obscures our inner truths.
The audiovisual alter ego of multi-instrumentalist Mahsa Zargaran, formerly a touring member of Big Black Delta and Puscifer, Omniflux has been gestating since 2011, playing low-key shows in her native L.A. and uploading increasingly evolved songs and videos. Written and self-recorded in numerous global locations, Aquarelle materialized in July.
Omniflux’s first tour, a six-week North American trek with ohGr and Lead Into Gold, wraps at the Cold Waves L.A. festival at 1720, in DTLA’s warehouse district, on Sept. 27.
“While I was making this specific body of work, I had these flashes of a paintbrush meeting with paper,” explains the Tehran-born Zargaran, her exotic timbre lingering. “And that watercolor just seeping further and further out, where … it doesn’t stay contained in that line or shape that you draw for it.”
Though she remains heavily influenced by classical music, which was all she had access to growing up in sanctions-stricken Iran, as well more recent (and very audible) stimuli including Massive Attack, Dead Can Dance, Portishead and PJ Harvey, Zargaran has largely created Omniflux in isolation, and often in silence.
“I still don’t listen to a lot of music,” she deadpans. “But visual art has been … a bigger part of my life in general, as far as what I take in; as far as external inputs.”
Accordingly, Zargaran temporarily relocated to Berlin in 2016, where she apprenticed for an installation artist while writing and recording much of what would become Aquarelle. Away from L.A.’s soaring cost of living and (related) sense of corner-cutting competition among musicians, she found an artistic community that was to reshape her entire creative approach.
“People don’t have to hustle as much [in Berlin],” she recalls. “They work at a place of … not ‘What can I do to get me to that destination faster?’ but more like ‘What is the voice that is within me?’ And that was hugely influential for me.”
So influential that, having worked further on Aquarelle during an extended stopover in Iceland (as well as worldwide while touring with Puscifer in 2016 and ’17), Zargaran relocated from L.A., where she’d lived most of her adult life, to Portland, Oregon, this time last year. To further liberate her art from a context where, in a constant quest for a record label and/or management, “your focus becomes that of salesperson,” she has increasingly become a one-woman show. She long ago disbanded the original Omniflux onstage quartet in favor of truly solo performances (augmented by DIY live visuals, art installations and projection mapping), and she self-released her debut.
“You sit on bodies of work that you should be actively doing something about yourself,” Zargaran says. “You get in this kind of stagnant place and I have just come to a place where that’s not where I feel powerful and free and creative and vibrant.”
This explains the delay in releasing Aquarelle, the recording of which was finished last summer, while she continued to work on its multiple visual components. Only the record’s mixing and mastering were performed by third parties, thanks to a goal-exceeding crowdfunding campaign.
“It was putting all of these elements together to release it as this world, as opposed to just 10 songs,” she says. “I was waiting to connect all the dots.”
The result is a brooding, equally ominous and optimistic heat haze of an album, wherein Zargaran’s glacial vocals float in and among, rather than above, the programmed instrumentation. The effect is more intravenous than face-slapping, and all the more poignant for it.
“I don’t want it to be this literal experience,” she insists. “I want the listener to listen to the sound design, to the production. Because that is where I experience a lot of the excitement of what I’m doing.”
This can leave Omniflux’s lyrical themes elusive. Zargaran says that these, and her broader artistry, were overarchingly shaped by her immigrant experience after her family arrived in Orange County in her mid-teens.
“The cultural shock that I experienced … put me in this place where I really had to draw myself inward and go back to basics,” she says. “And you have to learn to see and love people and things from unfamiliar angles. You start out as just trying to survive and, in the process, you kind of build this kind of monumental foundation for artistry.”
Observing, with an outsider’s clarity, who had power (and who was vulnerable) in her new environment also affected a worldview implied in both sound and words on Aquarelle. The album explores characters, including Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen on a track of the same name, who challenge what Zargaran has termed “inhuman systems” and “socially assigned boxes.”
“That dynamic of power and anarchy is something that I am extra sensitive to, and seeing … the kind of work that people have to do to break themselves out of that loop of group thinking and viewing themselves as the structures that are defined for them,” Zargaran says.
Aquarelle standout “Body by Bernays” exemplifies this train of thought, its lyrics inspired by the enduring influence of Edward Bernays, who pioneered today’s ultra-cynical modern marketing in the 1920s and ’30s.
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“The marketing strategies he came up with to condition people on how to spend their money, [and] what to think of an idealized life,” Zargaran marvels. “Decades later, people are still following those same principles and putting their own honest truth aside to participate in this game that was created for them and ends up putting them in this kind of coma.”
Omniflux brings Zargaran’s own “honest truth” to 1720 for what she still sees as something of a hometown show. She’ll also been pulling double duty on guitar for her erstwhile Puscifer bandmate Paul Barker’s Lead Into Gold project, as she has throughout the tour.
“The kind of show that I’m trying to create is one that’s more of an art experience — it’s more immersive,” she mulls. “Like you’re not just sitting at home listening to the record. I want it to be this enhanced, physical experience.”
Omniflux performs at Cold Waves VII LA with ohGr, Lead Into Gold, Author & Punisher, Cocksure and Rhys Fulber at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, at 1720.