Neil Jones – Albali

 

It doesn’t seem like music is really pushing the envelope anymore.  Most of the “innovators” in electronic music, for example, follow well-tread patterns, latching onto fad after fad in a mad dash for relevance on the dance floor and elsewhere.  There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule; they, unfortunately, reside far underground where most people may not hear them.

Most of this powerful, courageous, accident-prone music confuses or startles the uninitiated listener, suddenly confronted by a vast array of alien sounds and rule-breaking with impunity.  If one looks upon all of this with a certain curiosity and willingness, one would discover the whispers of familiarity and convention deeply embedded in even the most vexing song.  Neil JonesAlbali demands this open attentiveness from the very first track, “Fornax I.”  In order to look up at the sky and see all of the stars, you have to lie on your back first.

“Fornax I” is piping with alpine mystery and gradual majesty.  The song clearly announces the presence of brass on Albali, as well as scattered bits of synth and samples adding a fantastical sort of texture.  Layered with piano and a number of other elements, familiar sounds begin to mutate and gestate into entirely new creatures, populating a rich and colorful environment.

“Er Rai” is much more indicative of the overall style and sound of the record, propelled by light, pattering drums and a gorgeous guitar melody.  Little details, like the dry and hollow plucks of bass echo quickly across the stereo field – and the ebb and flow of a synth arpeggiator rolling in and out.  The vocals are gentle and hushed, but certainly in tune and on time and full of verve.  They give themselves over to the dreamy feeling of the song and command no more attention than the other elements.  It’s the right choice, because it accurately reflects on its true lineage: folk.

Folk music is something I’m only marginally familiar with.  I consider the handful of Damien Youth bootlegs I have and listen to worthy of the “folk” designation.  Be that as it may, I hear plenty of other musical worlds present here; not just that of folk.

Most of Albali maintains a dreamy, atmospheric quality that reminds me of Sigur Ros and, sometimes, Amorphous Androgynous.  In other places I can hear classic progressive rock, especially King Crimson’s Islands and Pink Floyd throughout the years.  Albali has no trouble in blasting well past those comparisons.  There’s a real dynamism present here; an undeniable and deeply-felt vigor.

Each arrangement, including the devastating “Meissa,” is performed with the utmost precision in timing and dynamics while the mix allows the monstrous, cavernous space of the song to soar of its own accord.  This song in particular seems to evoke Pink Floyd – with the wet, chorus-effected organ and the insistent picked guitars.  The brass is masterfully employed in this song, lending a slightly heroic/slightly downtrodden cinematic feeling.  The brass, refreshingly, plays a large part throughout the entire record, and isn’t just a gimmick on one song.  It’s vital to the ecosystem of this record, giving life and dimension to the instruments beneath and around it.  It harkens back to an older era, but not in a stale or uninspiring way.

Other instruments are not leaned on too much, as in the case of the strings.  The opening strings to “Wezen” – perhaps my favorite song on the record – are delicate and dry, vibrating in the space of a real room and groaning softly underneath the guitar and mournful brass.  The sparse piano sends chills down my spine, reaching out for those obvious and perfect moments that hit home.  It’s a song that reaches right into your heart with its heavy sadness and beauty like an icy hand.

After so much bleakness and solemnity, you would think the charming and delicate “Acamar” would be a welcome change of pace – and it mostly is.  However, when the drums build up and begin in earnest, their sound is flat and unimpressive.  Considering the depth of the rolling, low-frequency throb or the full-bodied piano – these drums miss the mark.  I’m not sure what precisely I would have preferred, but something about these drums down sit well with the folksy staggering rhythm of the song nor the lush feel of other sounds.  They didn’t sound like part of the original arrangement of the song – but that’s only my impression of the performance and mix, and not a statement of fact.

Midway through the album, we encounter “Fornax II,” which resumes some of the style of its predecessor – only this time evolving towards a different melody and conclusion.  Both songs have a wondrous, peculiar sound – as though Philip Glass built a “California’s Gold”-style antique music machine with his own take on foot-pedals, pumps, pipes, bells, and whistles.  The layers are dense, precise and full of a unique and authentic character; it is unlike most anything I’ve heard.

“Regulus” makes use of layers underneath a slow, simple melody floating down a river.  Chunky blues guitar emerges, laying a smoky haze over the track.  Subtle, tasteful synth-work builds upon the electric piano and acoustic guitar.  Again, the drums are underwhelming, the crash cymbal sounding fake next to the amazing bits and pieces floating around it.  It doesn’t entirely kill my enjoyment of this song, and it doesn’t ruin the record – but I’d be lying if I said I liked it.  The song intensifies over a marching snare while the vocals begin to distort.  Everything gradually flows into this heavy moment and the overall result is palpable.

“Angetenar” is a soothing, if mournful, instrumental track that mirrors the effect of “Elnath” on the pacing of the record: supplying adequate space for the intense moments of “Regulus” and “Arcturus” to dissipate, respectively.  Besides “Fornax” one and two, this appears to be another “cycle” or pattern to the record.  That, or its just my imagination.  Like his mixes and arrangements, Neil Jones’ album itself provides plenty of leeway for your imagination to roam.

“Sirius” has a more disjointed and scattered feel to it than “Regulus,” with hurried acoustic picking, swelling human voices, meandering piano, and a soulful electric guitar.  By the end of the song, you feel a bittersweet desperation, as though racing against a glorious red and orange sunset.

The title track returns to the carefully plodded and articulate style of the other songs.  It evokes the image of rain, the mountains, the sea.  Great, old trees peaking beneath the thin veil of an early morning mist.  The chorus, full of ascending notes, elevates us further towards the summit to examine the full scope of the horizon.  The woodsy, pure folk acoustic guitar keeps us tethered partly to the ground – a sense of reality, full of its own small, raw beauty.

Albali ends with the piano-led “Achenar.”  The slow, steady rising of the brass helps the songs take shape, reaching once more towards the sky.  The busy piano notes, like stars, entrench themselves in the thick and unyielding darkness of the night sky.

Albali is one of the most astounding and affecting records I’ve heard in years.  It takes chances, but lacks any hint of recklessness or lack of calculation – with the exception of some select drum parts.  Everything has an incredibly purposeful and carefully-sculpted ring to it.  The mix enforces space and balance – judicious choices made in the face of strange sonic combinations.  Neil Jones’ voice is extremely pleasant, boosted by the other voices softly resonating behind him.  From beginning to end, this record is magic.

Whether you like folk music or not is immaterial.  Albali’s emotion and its truth transcend the petty labels we assign to music.  This record is timeless and at home on any world you can point to in the night sky.  It’s not just ear-candy; it’s ambrosia for the imagination.

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Jayce Nall – I Make Noise

I Make Noise, the album from solo artist Jayce Nall, is eight tracks of jubilant, infectious modern synth-infused alternative pop.  Right off the bat, “All We Need” launches full force into a four-to-the-floor beat, 80’s synth pads, gesticulating arps, and a clean, proficient lead vocal.  It draws on of New Order’s appeal and Duran Duran’s confidence while sounding like neither.  There is something else at play, though, and you don’t hear until you dive further into the record.

The second song, “Magic,” is far funkier and laid back than “All We Need,” grooving to a walking bass line and offbeat guitar strums.  There’s far more of a Daft Punk influence here, and yet Jayce Nall’s vocals and production style keep it within the same ballpark of the rest of the record.  Rather than appearing as though he can’t decide on a sound, the impression I get is that he is competently exploring a number of different ideas. 

The main synth lead on “Where I Leave” seams to pay not-so-subtle homage to M83’s “Midnight City,” whereas the rest of the song sounds like a careful examination and variation on the nerdy earnestness of The Postal Service, especially with regards to the vocal delivery. 

However, the full-bodied guitar solo at two minutes-thirty nine breaks out of any comparison.  It’s fairly unique, from tone to melody, and sufficient in providing this song with a distinctive soul beyond that of a clever homage.  Being the most potentially “derivative” song, it is still great fun to listen to, and in some ways exceeds my enjoyment of “Midnight City.”

“Red Lights,” on the other hand, has a totally different feel than most anything in its class.  The guitars aren’t overly complicated, the beat is simple enough to follow, and the song’s overall structure is fairly conventional.  That being said, Nall takes full advantage of the flow he’s created and, somehow, it snuck its way to being my favorite track.  

This song, more than anything, convinced me that Nall is creating smart pop music: calculated, efficient, and spotless.  He can sing his own melodies; he doesn’t reach too far.  As a producer, he’s covering himself from top-to-bottom with a solid mix, catchy hooks, solid arrangements, and capable performances.  There are no bum notes or skipped beats, but it doesn’t sound totally machine-made, either – even on a danceable, saccharine-sweet song like “Glow.”

“Gun” made me realize that there was one other important comparison to make other than those I’ve already mentioned.  Abandoned Pools, and its principle member Tommy Walker, released a criminally over-looked album in 2001 called “Humanistic.”   In it, he successfully married Smashing Pumpkins-style rock with an electronic infused pop sensibility, maneuvering deftly between many styles and feelings in a way very similar to Jayce Nall’s “I Make Noise.”  I believe that while Nall may never have heard of Abandoned Pools or that record, he represents an evolution of that same concept – and a worthy one, at that. 

That may not sound fair to Nall’s deserved sense-of-self and unique identity, but the history of music, in my opinion, relies on progress.  What pleases me about Nall’s music is that while I can pick out similarities wherever I please, I’m only able to do that because I’m enjoying what I hear and it brings back fond memories.  For Nall, it’s probably most important that he is able to express himself and create the things he wants to hear.  For me, it’s most important that I am able to identify with the music and understand where it falls in the pantheon of pop: is this progress, or are we slipping backward?

“A Face I’d Like To Punch” has a wonderful drive to it; you can’t help but move while you listen.  Again, the mix is clean and balanced, impeccably sculpted to accommodate each element in the mix and each change in the arrangement.  Melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are expertly chosen.  I keep looking for missteps, but I get caught up with enjoying the song too much to find anything.  Overall, the record has a fun and free-spirited aura about it, effectively neutralizing negative feelings that may be in the vicinity.

Even the standard-operating-procedure gentle closing track, “Lift My Eyes” – with its typical, folksy guitar strums and lyrical romanticism – is quite beautiful and convincing.  Nall is an attentive student of the album arch, of pop music in general, of song structure, and apparently recording and mixing (you can do a lot worse with a laptop recording setup.)  I wanted to complain that the mastering of the album was, overall, a little quiet… but I don’t feel that way on the second listen. 

Frankly, I’m a bit jealous.  I can see what Nall is doing, how he’s doing it, and why – but he actually did it and he didn’t screw it up.  He made a fun, danceable record with heart and brains using minimal gear and maximal grasp of modern pop music convention.  I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

Nikmis – MAGIC

MAGIC will be tough to review.  My only frame of reference for this kind of music is Wendy Carlos and a handful of obscure composers.  However, that’s also partly why I am compelled to listen through and careful describe my experience of this album.  It is completely and utterly different than just about every record I’ve reviewed, and there’s not a lot in my personal library of music that is even remotely similar to Nikmis’ beat-less, baroque, and thoughtful record.

“Mini” features wavy synth pads, subtle cut-off and resonance manipulation, spikey patterns – everything floating atop a continuous bass synth loop.  Individually, these elements don’t seem to point towards a classical sensibility – but this music roughly approximates the nuance and complexity of classical music, drawing on sound music theory to draw the listener further into the world of the record.  You stop looking from the drums; expectations are managed by the affect of the creeping pace of the song.

Each song demonstrates the power of simple waveforms to deliver the impact of an orchestra by stripping sounds into clean, pronounced tones and showcasing the arrangement.  Despite the machine-like precision of this music, there is a distinct human element at the heart of it all, a well-spring of musical imagination surrounded by wires, knobs, keys, and circuitry.

“Worry” expertly evokes the dainty, affable quality of harpsichord-laden chamber music without relying on the FM synthesis of a harpsichord sample.  The entirety of MAGIC revolves around analogue electronics, and is therefor reliably distant from whichever instrument it is trying to approximate at a given time, but in such a way that demands your attention and extols the virtues of electronic music’s malleability.  It’s as if we’re inside of a “Westworld” scenario, with 19th century England as its theme, filled with robots on horse-drawn carriages or bowing politely to one another in a shimmering, spring garden.

“Uste” takes us further down this rabbit-hole.  I can see these humanoid machines, dressed in powdered wigs and the robes of ancient human nobility, dancing elegantly in a machine-crafted replica dance hall.  Even so, there is nothing “fake” or “empty” about this experience, or the feeling that the record produces.  You begin to inhabit the moment of these songs, letting the intricate arpeggios and incidentals wash over you in a smooth, flawless wave – dipping with each rest just as a chamber orchestra might.  After “Mini,” there’s not much in the way of conventional 4/4 time signatures or dance-floor chord progressions.

I personally choose to look at this record as though there is some kind of arch, or journey, that each song completes as you listen.  I have no basis for thinking this, but it helps me to enjoy a record by giving it some imaginary context; a story, with which to visualize the sound in my head.  To be perfectly fair, Nikmis may not have intended any particular story or single experience to rise up from this album.  That being said, MAGIC is a complete and other reality – captivating and mysterious, but invitingly expansive.  If Nikmis did not create this music to spur the listener’s imagination, than MAGIC is a wonderful mistake.

“Clest” is the first track to incorporate any discernable percussion: in this instance, a low, drum machine thud falling on the start of the beat.  We’re still a few light-years from shaking ass on the dance floor, but the guidance of the waltz is just fine like that.  Towards the end, there appears to be a gentle, descending “tom roll,” but like the kick drum it almost seems to only add to the melody and not to get your toes tapping.

There is, undeniably, a videogame aspect to MAGIC – as well as anime, for that matter.  However, most of the classic videogame composers my generation grew up with – from Koji Kondo’s “Mario Theme” to Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the Final Fantasy series – seemed to be far more interested in abandoning their classical influences in favor of, say, reggae (in the case of Mario) and only resorting to dramatic, orchestral music when a suitably dramatic animation sequence precedes the next “boss fight” (in the case of FF.)  Nikmis seems to be swimming directly against that current of videogame music thinking, so I think that the intimation of a “videogame” quality is not justified in this case.

“Woder” is an epic, painterly examination of life in cybernetic polite society – constructed with a rolling bass clef, chimes, and a virtual “woodwind” section of synths.  The elongated outro is perfect form, drawing from the musical aesthetic masterfully.  At nearly eight minutes, the song has such excellent pacing and structure that I hardly noticed its duration.

“Tiss” is somewhat darker, a nice switch considering the overbearing pleasantness of the previous three tracks.  Steeped in undulating sequences and shifting tempos, soft sprays of noise and the instant leadership of main synth pattern.  “Name” seems to be a slightly more romantic reflection on the template established by “Woder,” but contains plenty of excellent and distinguishing elements, including bubbly upward synths near the four minute mark, and an abrupt, temporary fill from synthesized drums two-thirds of the way through.  Then, at six minutes-fifty, the classical composition begins to fail, and the song appears overtaken by a tear in the virtual environment, exposing the mechanical components underneath – a “behind the curtain” moment.

“Darden” has a very masculine and aggressive feel, less flowery and more playful, galloping on cybernetic horses as robot dogs track a genelab-reproduced Vulpes vulpes through the hologram green of a Martian estate.  It’s dynamic and exciting, illustrating a chase from beginning to end with ups, downs, twists, and turns.  “Twell” is equally as energetic, hard-pan patterns and unison synth stabs and, here and there, a middle-eastern scale.  There’s also a flood of new textures in this track and still no skimping on arrangement.  There’s an adventurous spirit to this song that adds perfectly to the overall experience of the record.

“Shuy” is a marked departure from the confidence conveyed throughout MAGIC.  It has a far darker, more elusive mood than any other song with a gentle, underlying sense of chaos.  The parts all fits together, mostly, but they seem more jagged and less connected – broken in a way.  As the song approaches its end, and the conclusion of MAGIC draws near, all of that clean and present feeling has begun to sour, breaking down in tone and performance – as though running out of batter.  There’s something appropriately bittersweet about that, and although my least favorite song on the record, it completes its function.

MAGIC was a tough review.  In the end, however, I think I managed to dig out of it what I initially liked so much about it and couldn’t identify – I like it both as a work of art and as a statement.  Here is something beautiful and elegant: new sounds from old patterns, new interpretations from old institutions.  There are not many people out there doing what Nikmis does, and certainly very few people who do it as well.  And while MAGIC may leave some people scratching their heads, it will mostly certainly inspire others.

Supercomputer – Supercomputer

Modern indie rock is marked by some ubiquitous sonic items.  Over the last two decades, we’ve witnessed the slow infection of indie rock with electronic sounds; the thoughtful studio-degradation of sounds; raucous, sputtering drumbeats; mournful and idiosyncratic electric piano.  Radiohead has had a large hand in shaping the landscape, clearing the way for groups like France’s AaRON, New York’s TV On The Radio, England’s Elbow,  and – curiously enough – Massive Attack has begun to slide that direction as well.

I can understand why: in the same way that Flying Lotus and has ilk have captured the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-century electronic music listeners, Radiohead presented the world with an open-ended and inspiring outlook on the very extremes of indie rock music.  They – along with The Flaming Lips, Beck, and a handful of others – built the foundation for much of what we’ve heard in the last few years.  It’s reassuring to hear the natural progression of these things take their course, tracing clear lines to a noble origin.

The real magic, however, lies in the unforeseen mutations along the way.  Bands who emerge from a clear sense of the past have the important task of taking the audience further than we’ve been before.  Some bands rise to the occasion, and others fail.  Supercomputer, and their self-titled album, is a sharp and earnest group of musicians, with a peculiar mix of stability and chaos.  The album is filled with high-tensile songwriting and performances.  The lead singer has his particular range of delivery, but he nails his parts by accurately reading the song’s energy from one passage to the next.

The guitars are surprisingly “vanilla.”  I wouldn’t count this aspect against any record that includes wobbly synths and vocoders peppered about where you least expect them.  They keep the listener rooted firmly in the universe of rock music, shunning most overly-processed effects (the exception of some minor delay use) or cryptic patterns.  The guitars are impeccably played, recorded with mix-appropriate tones and distortions (there are one or two pleasant surprises along the way.)  The bass guitar, on the other hand, was slightly quieter than I preferred but it was still audible.  The reduced attack on the bass notes at the start of “Lebanon” are perfect in feeling, groaning beneath a filter-sequenced synth and clean, open vocals before the drums roll in.

The drums explore several different styles throughout the record, given over to the feel of the song or sometimes fighting the song openly.  On “Lebanon,” they’re slippery and jazzy, tumbling this way and that with broken fills.  They have a wonderful sense of timing, colliding with the band on a rhythmic tight rope throughout the track.  The drum sound, to me, is always a solid indicator of the strength of the overall mix.

Nothing can upset the balance between instruments more than the drums, and while they have excellent presence on this record they rarely ever overshadow the guitar, which in turn allows just enough room for bass and vocals.  “Movers and Shakers” exemplifies this perfectly.  The band chooses to overwhelm with spaced-out reverb guitar towards the end, dwindling to a buzz and setting the stage for “Echo Well” nicely.

With “Echo Well,” the delay-effected guitars bring to mind Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” pre-empting the shuffling march of the drums.  The song starts out fairly straightforward, caught in a pleasant loop.  After some time, however, the drums begin to switch up, dropping hits and delaying phrases as shimmering synth gently flits about.  As we close-in on the last minute of the song, we hear our old friend, the Korg Kaoss Pad.  Although it’s not used in quite the same way that Radiohead or others have used it, I was proud of myself for picking it out.  More than that, I thought it added a wonderful, non-melodic element of chaos and even “emotion” to the song as it degenerated.

If you that found that passage odd, “Last Gasp” arrives just in time to demonstrate a clear talent for conventional songwriting and production.  But it’s a ruse: the song undergoes a strange and sudden transformation halfway-through, dropping down into a scattered synth suspended in the darkness.  Then, out of nowhere, the song remerges in a crushed, distorted box; slowly winding back up into the original sonic space of the song.  We’ve been thrown for a very weird little loop, but it’s a welcome shake-up: this band is not afraid to break out of what they are doing in pursuit of the most interesting sound it can muster.

“The Sun” begins with an introspective guitar strumming underneath the vocalist.  The band comes crashing in after a few bars, stabs of synth pads and intermittent clouds of vocoder remind me of Pink Floyd to a small extent.  There are some great moments of texture and space underneath the song: the clean, broad strum at two minutes-twenty seven; the abrupt shift to chugging, in-your-face guitars dropping like pillars on either side of the stereo-field.  Gradually, those guitars relent and the song reverts to its acoustic guitar strum under the refrain “You saw right through me…”  The build begins once more, reaching higher and higher… and then the fade.  I would have waited a few more seconds – we were just arriving at the summit of this mountain, and I wanted to look around a bit longer.

We move on to “Take It Down,” which is  slightly reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Jigsaws Falling Into Place.”  But then, who knows from what previous artist Radiohead lifted its influences.  Despite the passing resemblance these songs share with one another, one cannot ignore the pronounced “American” quality to Supercomputer when juxtaposed with Radiohead.  Radiohead sounds uptight and dour; whereas Supercomputer sounds free-wheeling and capable.  I’ve realized that just because I’m reminded of other artists only means that this band has managed to port into music I’ve absorbed in my young adulthood, music that has seeped into my subconscious.  I feel as though I’m on the record’s wavelength, and the sensation is affirming in a way.

Even more so when considering the rustic, insistent waltz of “I’m Still The Same,” which serves as a segueway between first and second halves of the record.  It has a bright, room-mic quality, like a cut from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk experiments jammed out to its logical conclusion.  It has a mysterious way of preparing you for the smooth, open, and dynamic “10,000 Stories Tall.”   This song, slower and packed with extreme depth, is both challenging and gorgeous.  It is comprised of bits and pieces, roughly the same sketch of a chord progression, spilling over different spaces and riding solemn electric piano.  It crumbles into the bramble of quick acoustic guitar strums, flecks of golden light over the deep waters of the bass, fenced in by the tall green reeds of a pump organ.

“Lebanon (Revisited)” leads us back to the beginning through the atmospherics of the album’s opening track, with the notable exception of some lovely, distant guitars and a frenetic, sparkling arpeggiator.   If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this record, it’s that there is a recurring desire to surprise the listener and blast a few thousand light years beyond audience expectation.  At the one minute mark, the song erupts a la The Flaming Lips with thunderous drums and the soft cacophony of wild guitars electrifying the background.  It is, perhaps, my favorite song on the record.

Supercomputer closes with “Two Timer,” parts one and two.  Part one begins with a spare, jazzy atmosphere.  I continue to be impressed by the drum performance and mix – they are exceptional.  The natural “woodiness” of the piano carries through, spread nicely across the stereo field.  Sprinklings of electric piano and bells bring out the wistful, wintery character of this song – streetlights in a snowy, northern city.

We’re dropped directly into the ascending synth sting chords of “Two Timer Part Two,” which feels part of the same universe of the previous song but assumes a new energy – a quicker pace and something darker about it in general, as though looking at the previous song from the other side and revealing something close to menacing or disconcerting.  The breakdown and buildup in this song rides the echoing vocals to great effect.  The build continues and lets out in fragments and shreds.

This album properly demonstrates a band’s power over its influences.  What did artists of the past get wrong, and what did they get right?  What can I add to the pantheon of this musical genre – what am I driven to say and how shall I say it?  Supercomputer has created an album that competently answers those questions, and defines itself quite clearly as a unique entity.  No one else could have made this record, not with its twists and turns and penchant for sonic risk.  As I’ve said before, the stable and sober guitar work keeps the band from spinning off axis altogether and allows the effects and experimental elements to run freely.  The execution was new and good.  This is an album that needs a second or third listen before you can begin to really ‘get’ what’s happening, but when you do get it, that magic will stay with you.

Deramico – Light Pollution

Light Pollution, the latest release from Austin, TX electronic music artist Deramico, is a collection of smooth, crystalline chill-out tracks of incredible depth and impeccable energy.  Right out of the gate, “Feeling better on sleepless nights” pleases with its lush pads and smooth, featureless bass.

Add in some pleasantly plinking synth bits and you really begin to hear the sonic lineage of Orbital and early Aphex Twin seep through.  The drums eventually arrive, but they don’t overwhelm the song by any means.  The beat is simple, varied, and tied-in directly to the rising and falling action of the song in a mature, composed way.  The use of cut-off filters isn’t just standard practice for this kind of music: they are used with great strategic subtlety.

I enjoy this music because the imagery, for me, is firmly rooted in the future.  Technology yet to be born; world events yet to transpire; new ways of thinking about and looking at the universe; re-shaping the human race entirely and leaving the old world in obscurity – this is the appeal of the “future” to those of us who speculate about it.  Art assists us with this contemplation.

Futuristic music, especially, can generate rich, immersive environments for our imaginations to run wild in.  The power of this music reached me when I was very young and didn’t quite understand what I was hearing.  The synth and programming work on Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” the sprinklings of synths and samples in Fleetwood Mac’s “Tango in the Night,” 80’s synth pop and darkwave, and finally when I was older: The Future Sounds of London, Orbital, Aphex Twin, and so on.

Then, everything changed.  The future, as portrayed by modern electronic music, started sounding louder, cheesier, less imaginative, more commercial, too derivative, purposefully meaningless, and gimmicky.  Dubstep, as we know it today, relies on a limited set of tools and a restrained imagination.  Dubstep isn’t created to provoke thought, in my opinion.  It’s purely about selling a product.  I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who can even dance to it.

Elsewhere, we are haunted by the specter of spurious new genres of music like “Trap” and “Big Room,” both of which sound like bedroom producers attempted to hybridize hip hop and EDM but gave up halfway through and called it good.  Trance music, I can only imagine, is now mostly listened to by housewives during their morning workout routine, where they privately relive their days as candy kids.

Electronic-based musical artists with exceptionally pronounced “marquee value” – like Massive Attack, Nine Inch Nails, Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, and others – have transcended the death of the genres the birthed them and now focus on increasing the scope of their respective brands.  Their primary demographic is one steeped in a preference for nostalgia (read: before music started to suck.)

But new electronic music doesn’t really suck, at least not as much as one might think.  Great electronic music, full of imagination and feeling and imagery, has largely gone underground.  Success, and the struggle to maintain it, has distracted some of our brightest stars from the work of creating truly inspirational sounds, whereas the lowly home producer has the time, patience, and discipline to pursue experiments and complete ideas that fall outside of the mainstream.

I think Deramico has created something here that reminds me of artists and records from the past, but the amount of variation and hyper-detailed structuring of these compositions eclipses those comparisons.

At first glance, Light Pollution is minimalist; spare elements crowd together in various combinations within a number of different spaces.  However, the songs change and mutate over time.  Loops aren’t strictly loops anymore and while the songs progress via the addition and removal of layers, those layers end up changing themselves.

The danger here is that if the casual listener isn’t paying enough attention, a given song can begin to sound repetitive and inert.  It’s not true, but without examining each sound and its relationship to the arrangement you might not know it.

Great care was taken with this precision record, and it deserves – no, demands – a precision listen.  And then, when you learn these songs, and understand what they are trying to explore and how, they comfortably sit inside any background music mix you may use to clean house to.

Electronic music isn’t really always about dancing, and I didn’t find myself having a real desire to move in time to the music.  The music is more about imagery than anything, moving ideas around in your head and providing a clean, elegant framework for the enjoyment of melody, rhythm, and harmony.  “Skyscrapers” is the perfect example of this: chalk full of ideas that tickle your mind without inducing the desire to move.

On the other hand, “Forever until death makes us part” is kind of groovy, despite it’s organic piano chords and stripped-down production.  “Dive,” “Phantomicide,” and “Six” are almost pure dance tracks, with more insistent beats and more traditional tools from bygone dance floors.

And while they are just as well-executed as the other less beat-oriented songs, they aren’t my favorites.  If anything, they slightly undercut Deramico’s overall talent for staking out new territory and fighting the urge to lean “pop.”  That said, they are still enjoyable – but by the end of the record, you’ve heard Deramico do far more interesting things.

“Forgotten” is the best balance between Deramico’s split personality.  Yes there is a beat for a large portion of the song, but it comes and goes.  The songs feels consumed by atmosphere, stronger than the catchy beat.  The sequenced synth parts are the main attraction: how they undulate, curl, and expand.

The album eventually dives into piano – not a tacky, over-effected piano – but one that sounds natural, recorded in a room and played by a human being.  That “human touch” has been there the whole time throughout the record, and the fact that all of the synths and beats sort of dissolve away over the last few songs is a brilliant arch to this record, as though it had an overall trajectory from machine to human the whole time.

Electronic music is easy to make, and everyone knows it – and that’s why it’s hard to take electronic music producers seriously.  Every now and then, however, you come across a producer and a record that is undeniably sophisticated and cleverly sculpted.  Light Pollution’s hidden complexity, triumphant humanity, and competent imagination are not up for debate.