The Breaching Experiment’s “E.O.W.”

Post by ~ Christian Ståhl

On 13 September, The Breaching Experiment releases the album E.O.W. and a new musical genre is born: sociological metal. It may sound a bit pompous – sociological themes have surely surfaced before – but it is to my knowledge the first metal album explicitly built on sociological theory. And the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) makes its appearance on it.

The idea to incorporate sociological themes into music has been with me for a while. When I came across Erik Olin Wright’s book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), it started to take shape. The book is something of a sociological exception – a theoretical work with an explicit purpose to change the world and not just criticise it. Wright called it a work of emancipatory social science. While reading it, I could catch myself smiling out of sheer joy – this is what we should be focusing on!

Wright describes how any work of emancipatory social theory needs to start in a critique of the present and the things it attempts to change – a sociological diagnosis. But for it to become emancipatory, it needs to do something more: to establish a direction for alternatives and describe how to get there. That does not mean a complete account of a future society, but to establish certain principles for every change to be measured against.

Wright’s suggestion for such principles are social and political justice, meaning equal access to the necessary material and social means to live flourishing lives, and the means to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect peoples’ lives. After settling this direction, Wright goes on to describe the elements for a theory of social change, and examples of current social practices or policies that are in line with this direction, where UBI is one such example.

The work on the album started in July 2019. I wrote up an outline of which themes from the book could be transformed into song lyrics, and how these could be represented musically. I finished the lyrics, and then isolated myself for a week to write and record most of the music. All instruments were played by myself apart from some guitar solos performed by a friend, Marcus Borggren, and narration by Doug Gross, Markus der Schlagwerker, Monica Wise, Tom Wise and Anna-Carin Fagerlind Ståhl.

The track ‘Growth Machine’ summarises Wright’s main critical points against capitalism. He is careful to point out that many of these criticisms are true also for other economic systems, which does not make their relevance in relation to capitalism less poignant. I knew early on how I wanted this one to sound – being the opening track with the most critical lyrics, it needed to be brutal, and I wanted it to begin with a raging scream (the model for this was the opening of Pantera’s album The Great Southern Trendkill).

The next three songs are the most theoretical ones. ‘Elements of a Theory of Transformation’ outlines some of the aspects that any emancipatory social theory needs to target, namely social reproduction; limits, gaps and contradictions in current systems; and trajectories for social change. ‘Conform and Confirm’ focuses more closely on social reproduction. ‘The Compass’ takes aim at Wright’s claim that any idea of social change needs a direction, and that real utopias, in order to be considered real, need to be desirable, viable and achievable. These songs are followed by an instrumental track, ‘A Reality of Harms’, which serves as an interlude before changing focus from the theoretical to the practical. (Listen on Spotify here).

Wright describes three potential trajectories of social change, which I have turned into three songs with corresponding musical representations. ‘Rupture’ describes the revolutionary ideal of overthrowing the existing system and replacing it entirely with a more desirable order. Musically, I needed this to be a bit more punk-oriented, which I think goes well with the revolutionary lyrics. ‘Dandelions’ presents an anarchistic ideal of building alternatives in the cracks of the current system – I just knew I needed a banjo for this one, perhaps because I was imagining some rural American setting for this (the lyrics do mention Thoreau). ‘The Generic Swede’ presents the social democratic vision of an alliance or compromise between capitalism and policies of social equality. (Listen on Soundcloud here).

‘Real Utopias’, finally, is a summary of Wright’s arguments, along with fictive accounts of alternatives to capitalism which are currently in existence in different parts of the world. I approached the International Sociological Association for permission to use the audio from one of Wright’s conference keynotes, which they kindly granted. In the lecture, Wright describes how political protests need to be placed into a larger historical setting, and how they can be related to the kinds of transformation explored in the three preceding songs. I also included some narratives inspired by examples from the book, where four types of social practices or policies are explored: participatory budgeting, wage-earner funds, co-operative market structures, and UBI.

Wright was a strong proponent of UBI, seeing it as a type of policy that promotes the principles of social and political justice outlined in his book. UBI was one of the ideas that introduced me to Wright’s thinking, which I now can see represents a fuller set of ideas in which the idea of UBI can be placed, and which may help us to develop theoretically grounded strategies to support a transition toward that goal.

With this album, my ambition is to help spread the word by introducing it into another cultural sphere. This may be a very niche type of music – it should appeal primarily to those who are both interested in the emancipatory potential of social theory, and who appreciate metal. But those who fall into this category are in for a treat.

(A note about the band name: a breaching experiment is a deliberate attempt to illuminate implicit social norms by breaking them, as described by Harold Garfinkel in the sociological tradition of ethnomethodology.)

More about the author


Christian Ståhl - @ChristianStaahl

Is a Sociologist, bass player and Associate Professor at Linköping University in Sweden.


UBI Lab SheffieldComment