Chungking Mansions – ShowView

Dream Catalogue (DREAM_92), 2015

Vaporwave can be a daunting thing to break into. The bands are usually anonymous, and the band names and album and track titles are often composed solely of Asian characters. Add the large and still developing subgenres that vary wildly in style and composition, along with the rapid stream of new releases, and keeping up is a demanding but potentially heavily rewarding proposition.

I’m a relatively recent vaporwave convert, so while I’m no expert, one of the first albums that got me hooked was ShowView by Chungking Mansions, and I still consider it to be quite a fitting starting point for those interested by this most curious of genres. It touches on several of vaporwave’s subgenres while still managing to maintain a cohesive feel – no small task, given the breadth of styles dwelling under the vaporwave umbrella. On ShowView, first and foremost, there’s the heavy modern Asian mood so integral to the vaporwave experience – Hong Kong in this case – from which the project draws inspiration and source material. You’ll get Asian jingles, with the vocals downpitched and melodies stretched into hazy melancholic bliss. You’ll hear jazzed-up horns and bass, urban-soaked trip-hop, and field recordings of airports, nightlife, city streets, malls, and commercials, all of it cut up, reversed, reverbed, and filtered. Vaporwave is often a celebration of consumer culture, but can also be deeply critical and cynical. Most of it skews towards an Asian urban setting, reflecting both the energy and the vapidness of the city center. Chungking Mansions has delved into all on its debut album ShowView, a remarkably assured and confident entry into the hard-to-nail-down vaporwave style.

ShowView displays a lot of these different yet related perspectives. In many ways, I see it as Vaporware 101; an introduction to the vast array of styles and sensibilities the genre dips into, as well as a hint as its conceptual potential. You’re likely to find entire vaporwave albums built on any one of the styles featured in any of the eighteen tracks on the album (it’s common for vaporwave tracks to be on the shorter side; only one here is over four minutes long). And yet, Chungking Mansions has made this mashed-up and fractured example of 21st-century Hong Kong lifestyle to be a highly listenable experience, providing a keenly conceived sonic portrait of the place it represents. Even though I continue to explore the neon-drenched depths of vaporwave on a daily basis, this is an album I keep returning to, because it’s such a finely focused yet varied example of what the genre aims to achieve.

It remains to be seen whether the retro-futuristic, internet-obsessed, cyber-punk realm of vaporwave is going to stick, or if it ends up morphing into something utterly unlike what it sounds like today. Even an album that sounds as cutting-edge as ShowView can sound basic when compared to some of the more recent abstract efforts that vaporwave continues to create. This album is a fitting portrait for the current high-speed quick-shifting generation, in spite of its constant and curious cultural backward glancing. On ShowView, Chungking Mansions has captured the immersive aesthetic of ambient, the energy of glitch and IDM, the chilled vibe of downtempo, the slyness of trip-hop, the immediate honesty of field recordings, and the playful quirk of Asian commerce into a single heady package. Its scope alone makes it a must-listen, but like vaporwave itself, there’s much more here than is readily apparent. ShowView may be somewhat baffling at first listen, but it quickly sinks its hooks into you, and you can’t help but explore it. If you find this album to be even the slightest bit intriguing, it’s just the tiniest glimpse into the hypnotic and mysterious urban maze that is the vaporwave universe.

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Nest – Nest

Serein Records (SER013), 2007

A nest, in my view, is intended to be a place of serenity and refuge. A safe place where you can completely lose yourself with no concern about what may happen. It’s fitting, then, that the duo Nest uses delicate melodies of calming piano edged with minimal electronic treatment as the foundation of their debut EP, Nest. A nest that creates a nest? Sounds ideal.

Otto A. Totland (Deaf Center) and Huw Roberts (Hidden Rivers) started their friendship while working with the Miasmah label, and their Nest project is a collaboration that doesn’t sound like one. The two artists show tremendous chemistry on their debut, with Totland’s piano meshing naturally with Roberts’ assortment of subtle washes and treatments. I’m reminded of Nighthawks, the collaboration of Harold Budd, John Foxx, and Ruben Garcia, but Nest’s piano isn’t as minimal as Budd’s trademark icy reverb. Totland’s keys are more intimate, gliding slowly through melancholic and cinematic melodies, pausing with just enough emphasis, perfectly enhanced by Roberts’ atmospherics.

The opener, “Lodge,” provides an ideal glimpse at this structure, as the plaintive, wistful piano meanders through a soft synthetic haze. “Marefjellet” and “Charlotte” are more somber and reflective, with the latter breaching into bittersweet sentimentality. Nest adds instrumentation here as well, as you’ll hear plucked harp and strings. The strings are taken to a level of buried tension on “Cad Goddeau,” and the looped woodwinds and sampled crows increasing the air of expectancy. As you might expect from the title, the flavor of “Kyoto” is distinctly Asian; the short plucked-string salvos conjure an unmistakable aura. Rain hisses and crackles in the background, dissolving into the pops and spits of a fire. Such attention to detail is expanded on “Trans Siberian,” which is the most ambient track on the album. Roberts takes the spotlight, his light drone and electronic noise borders the sounds of train and static-drenched samples of old records. The piano is reduced to a few minimal, but effective chords, perhaps conveying the loneliness of a train winding slowly through a curtain of falling snow.

At a scant 28 minutes in length, Nest could be viewed as an EP rather than an album proper, but it carries more depth than many albums twice its length. It’s striking how well Totland and Roberts work together, especially as this is their debut. Their musical sanctuary isn’t just a place of refuge; though it certainly succeeds as such, there’s much more going on below the surface, should you want to look deeper. Nest has made a remarkable piece of ambiance that works on multiple levels, and reveals itself a bit more with each listen. Whether you just let it enfold you, or you venture to create hidden worlds out of these structures, Nest will provide.

Off Land – Microcosm

Jerky Oats Records (JOAT030), 2011

Infinity moves inward as well as out. As one journeys into the endless reaches of the universe, so too can one venture past the subatomic level of matter, moving ever further into the internal. Tim Dwyer tackles this two-sided infinity on Microcosm, an eighty-minute collection of minimal ambient fringed with elements of glitch and IDM.

Originally released in 2003 as Microvast under Dwyer’s former alias X:F System, the material has been reworked with the expanded ideas Dwyer developed as Off Land. Regardless of label, Dwyer leans on the idea of the album as concept, resulting in little variance over the thirteen tracks on Microcosm. There’s little in the way of percussion here, the odd bass drumbeat and reduced glitch pattern aside, as Dwyer uses cinematic keyboards that ease along simple chord patterns in an unobtrusive manner. This is the kind of album that you can have drifting along in the background, looping to maintain a consistently calming type of atmosphere, and there’s enough variety to keep it from growing too stale. Vocal drops, distinguishable and otherwise, break up the analog synths and reliance on wobbly reverb in measured places; “Wander” is a good example of how Dwyer keeps things moving without threatening his established mood.

If Microcosm had shifted its content to a wider and bolder palette, it would have transformed into something very close to classic space-faring dark ambient. Here’s where Off Land explores its ever-smaller concept: the music is kept close and warm, on the wondrous side of exploration. The soaring pads of “Orchard” are mixed with a vibrating series of sequences, drawing you down and down, past the leaves and roots, into the endless field of molecules that make up the landscape. The follower, “Concrete,” is darker and colder, befitting the title substance’s artificial nature.

Off Land takes its implosion deeper as the album closes. The final four tracks are the longest on Microcosm , and the extended structure allows Dwyer to develop his concept in a longer format. “Others,” for example, is a slow haunting drift through atomic haze, the pads keeping their distance but still fleshing out the wide-eyed sense of the album. “Solar” is more structured; like the opener “Charon,” it’s given form through skeletal clicks and cuts and looped piano, with the ever-present electronic wobble further connecting it to the rest of the cosmos we’ve been journeying through. This is not a track intended to portray the glory of the sun, at least, not as a celestial body; rather, I get the sense it’s aimed at examining photosynthesis through a microscope. The album comes to a fitting close with “Dual,” an eleven-minute bed of comfortable synths and gentle vibrations.

Listened to actively, Microcosm does wear a bit thin. Many of its tracks are so similar in form and mood, there can be little distinction, especially with so much content. I must admit, too, that the ever-present vibrations do tend to grate on my ears over time; the last thing you want in from music intended to immerse. I don’t think this was Off Land’s plan, however. Microcosm is a catalyst for aided relaxation, a companion for an imagined trip far down the fractal spiral. Approached from this design standpoint, it’s easy to see just how well Off Land has nailed the concept.

Red Fog – Exodus To The Land Of The Drone

DNA Production (DNA 162), 2014

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I love it when albums and tracks have cool titles. There’s something about thrilling about a super-attractive album name that doesn’t exist when you’re faced with a list of “Untitled” tracks, even to the point of having an effect on your enjoyment. At least, I know this is the case for me.

It can work the other way too. Take, for example, the near-groan-worthy title of Exodus To The Land Of The Drone, one of a series of netlabel EPs from Red Fog. It’s the kind of title that I probably wouldn’t normally look at twice, except for two things. One, Red Fog has released EPs with magnetic titles like Zone Of Avoidance, Sculpted in Luminol, and the gloriously named Inscrutable Vapor Grid. Second, Exodus has track titles like “Castle of Condensation” and “Cinder Petals.” Now these are tracks I know I’ve just got to hear based on their titles alone.

What’s most important, however, is that Red Fog has consistently produced darn good dark-tinted drone. “Castle” is a yawning, sprawling display of grandiose drone minimalism, bold yet subtle. Red Fog is particularly adept at this type of drone: slightly layered tones work with each other in an unwavering longform style, with a few incidents of sampled details dotting the landscape. In the case of “Castle,” you get some scattered icy specks spilling across the broad swaths of drone, and some instances of bubbling water; this is how to properly title a track. I particularly like this marriage of the sonic and the imaginative, where I’m presented an outline from the artist and given the chance to expand upon it in my head. Here, I roam wide stairways and empty halls carved from melting ice, wondering at who built it and for what purpose. The translucent walls expand and contract, as if breathing. I slip into this place easily, buoyed on the back of Red Fog’s enveloping atmospheres. The experience just isn’t the same without the provided starting point.

“The Quiet Magnetar” is another example of this. The drone is simplistic, as expected, but muted – as suggested by the title. Over its sixteen minutes, the basic structure barely moves, but that’s exactly what a “quiet magnetar” would be. Red Fog often includes a series of scrapes, clicks, and other bits of noise; here, they create quite an effective sense of mystery without becoming repetitive. Once these pieces of noise fade away and the drone takes over – this is the land of the drone, remember – the track blooms into a wonderfully evocative portrait of consistent mood created and maintained by gradually and carefully controlled evolution. It’s drone at its best. Whatever the track is describing is ultimately up to the listener, but Red Fog doesn’t over-describe or under-describe what’s being presented here, and when this happens, the project is at its most effective.

The other two tracks on the EP don’t work quite as well. “Volans Disruption” and “Cinder Petals” stick to the simple-yet-effective formula of solid uncomplicated walls of steadfast drone, but don’t share the same sound-title chemistry. The added patterns of sampled glitch on these tracks are a nice change of pace, but their presence sounds a little forced. As a result, the tracks go on a bit too long; Red Fog drifts somewhere between traditional and longform ambient.

While there is certainly a place for untitled abstract sound art, Red Fog smartly doesn’t take that route. The project gains a hefty amount of identity from its imaginative sci-fi-inspired titles and corresponding fantastical sound palette, but takes measured care to allow the listener plenty of freedom to explore. Of course, you don’t have to take Red Fog’s lead, but it’s there should you want it. I hope you do, for when Red Fog peaks – both on this EP and elsewhere among the project’s releases – it’s a potently interactive listening experience of sound supporting concept. Taken at face value, the tracks are perhaps a bit long and a tad uneventful, but the draw of Red Fog is how you use the titles to shape what you hear. I mean, this is a project that has made tracks with titles such as “Doppler Sabotage” and “Forest of Diodes.” Aren’t you just a little bit intrigued?