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.