Off Land – Commute

Resting Bell (RB062), 2009

No one likes their commute. Not really. Especially if it’s lengthy. Tim Dwyer, who records electronic experimental music as Off Land, hated his commute. In 2006, he had what he called a “dead-end brainless” job, and endured a two-hour commute every day. Looking for a way to cope with the monotony, he recorded the sound of his journey, and then converted the various sounds into musical elements. Three years later, he released this conceptual work with the simple title Commute.

It’s not a new concept, but the way Dwyer went about assembling and portraying his journey sets it apart from works focused on lightly enhanced field recordings. For Commute, Dwyer turns crowd noise into piano notes, the subway sound into light percussion, and assorted vehicles and weather into drones and keyboards. This might sound dense and busy, but it’s quite the opposite; Dwyer spaces the different sounds carefully, intertwining minimal melody with tapping drums and wandering whistles.

As a finished product, Commute is an hour-long album split into three tracks, each representing a part of Dwyer’s journey: reaching the subway, the ride downtown, and a trip on a second subway line. There’s a definite sense of progression, as the combination of sounds begins very sparsely, with the activity increasing as the city center is reached. There are field recordings as well, but they’re scattered and restricted to the urban stage of the trip: a distorted voice announces what may be train schedules, a passing siren, the shrillness of an alarm bell. These elements give variety and character to the album; while Dwyer does a fantastic job keeping things from dragging despite the relatively small number of pieces making up his sonic collage, the basic identity of the album is the same from start to finish. These samples provide depth, and while they’re largely confined to the latter sections of the album, they’re something of a reward for the patient listener, and they’re given deeper meaning when heard in context.

Commute is certainly an ambient work, and its singular nature nudges it towards longform. Its slow pace and repeating sounds are calming, intended to make the drudgery of the commute more bearable, and the music has a way of lulling the listener into its odd stripped-down structure without becoming soporific. Conceptually, Dwyer has given us an interpretation of the sounds of his daily journey: Commute is about commuting, but it’s also the sound of the commute itself. It’s soothing to listen to, but is also interesting to hear how its component parts fit together, aping the ebb and flow of modern travel, combining its numbing predictability and its daily uniqueness. While one might take an identical route, day after day, the trip itself is never really the same.

Off Land is an interesting project, wherein Dwyer flexes his experimental sensibilities across a wide range of styles. With Commute, however, he’s managed to capture something elusive: an album that works on multiple levels, smoothly fusing concept and execution in the same package, something highly listenable and deeply engaging. This isn’t experimentation merely for its own sake. Rising above the dullness of routine and refusing to let it drown his creative spirit, Dwyer has taken one of the most universally annoying things about our modern civilized world and turned it into something beautiful.


Future City Love Stories – 油尖旺 DISTRICT

Dream Catalogue (DREAM_48), 2014

There’s a lot of 80s-inspired vaporwave, and a good deal of experimental 4/4 beats with Asian-flavored samples, but what ambient entries there are tend to be heavily skewed towards consumer culture; the mallsoft subgenre being one example. Ambient with a heavy dose of field recording is nothing new, but given the futuristic leanings of vaporwave, you’d think there’d be more attempts at creating sounds that stick to a future-ambient template.

Now, while such albums may very well exist in healthy numbers and I just haven’t come across them yet, there is one I’ve discovered which is a perfect example of what I’ve described above: 油尖旺 DISTRICT, the first album from the project named Future City Love Stories. On the Dream Catalogue bandcamp page, there’s a brief synopsis (many vaporwave albums have such supplemental blurbs) about two lovers wandering the streets, and the album is what they hear as they roam.

油尖旺 DISTRICT is short. Very short. It’s twelve tracks, but following the current vaporwave trend, only one track is over three minutes. The entire album is a mere twenty-two minutes in length. Each track flows into the next without pause, and since the album ends as abruptly as it begins, it’s designed to be looped. The sound is very dense, with clouds of samples and field recordings, all sourced from the urban center of some Asian city – construction noises, vehicles, snatches of commercials and ads, the hiss of the subway, and scattered voices – reprocessed and filtered and given new life. Tying it all together is a minimal arrangement of synthesized atmosphere, drifting in the background with delicate melody and mood; Future City Love Stories has manipulated the mix masterfully. This is the kind of detailed album that continues to gradually reveal its secrets upon repeat listens, and it’s only through revisits that you begin to grasp just how well-put together the album is. For example, there’s a particular vocal sample that’s repeated throughout, but in different incarnations, pitched differently here, cut up or stretched out there, and then pops up buried in reverb or completely unprocessed. I didn’t notice this until my fifth or sixth deep-listen session, and it was then that I began to understand how tidy a package this album truly is. I’ve been listening to this solidly for weeks, and am still finding new layers.

In my experience, ambient is at its most effective when it’s both a directed and a deflected experience. Future City Love Stories has pulled this off magnificently with 油尖旺 DISTRICT, and it’s exceedingly impressive that this album is the project’s first effort. Despite its brevity, this is a daydream journey through an imagined place, a window into the fantastic; it’s somehow familiar and deeply, thrillingly alien. In other words, 油尖旺 DISTRICT isn’t just a foray into a hidden corner of neo-future vaporwave; it’s a riveting work of ambient excellence.

Post Mortem Photographs – Post Mortem Photographs

La Manufacture De Bruit (MDB03), 2009

This has old-school post-industrial written all over it. The self-titled debut from Post Mortem Photographs (David Vallee and Stephane Flauder) is thick with the ashes of those who’ve come before. Beyond the morbid name, so reminiscent of the heyday of Cold Meat Industry and Malignant Records, the sound here is snatched from the cold dark vaults of yesteryear, all ominous drones, tolling bells, metallic scrapes and clanks, looped German vocal samples, and a general sense of foreboding. It’s a tribute to shock value, in both concept and atmosphere, and it’s a fitting one.

Arranged into eight “Mouvements” and one thirteen-second “Interlude”, there’s little doubt about what this project is aiming for, and darned if it doesn’t manage to nail it between its staring undead eyes. Taking cue from the age of early German expressionist films, the album seems to be a soundtrack for those largely silent and starkly minimal affairs. The whispered vocals flit and flicker among the dread-infused electronics, which move smoothly from sampled noise to bonecrushing drums to drone and back again; there’s little variation in formula from track to track.

And yet, there’s aesthetic here, among the minimal synthetic wasteland of abandoned asylums and rain-soaked graveyards. The sampled monotone chant of “Mouvement 4” is flanked by piano and violin; it’s still dark, but it’s not the same cold doom and gloom pervading the bulk of the album. This track in particular strongly recalls the religious heights of raison d’etre, with its sense of isolated contemplation and introverted musing. “Mouvement 7” is similarly sparse and reflective, with the plaintive piano providing a human element to the synthetic instrumentation. The album really strips down on “Mouvement 8,” as mournful strings and spaced percussion are punctuated by the always-creepy sample of laughing children.

If Post Mortem Photographs was attempting to raise the ghosts of the post-industrial past, they’ve certainly succeeded. While there’s nothing really new here, it’s handled quite well, and may surprise with its range of projected emotion. This is a worthwhile trip through dim and haunted halls where many have walked, but it’s an effective and memorable reminder of what made the genre so successful, once upon a time.