Donovan Hikaru – Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe!

Adhesive Sounds (AS064), 2016

If you’d told me a year ago that an album of chill-out corporate jazz would be one of my favorite records of 2016, I’d likely have thought you were out of your gourd. And yet, here we are, halfway through the year, and Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe! from Donovan Hikaru is exactly that. You never know how things may turn out, do you?

Donovan Hikaru is no stranger to the eclectic offshoot of vaporwave that finds its identity in the music of business. This album is a re-release of 2015’s Business Travel Bonanza, now bundled by the superlative label Adhesive Sounds with an all-new EP, It’s My Company….I Can Fly If I Want To. Yes, Donovan Hikaru, whose actual name is David Jackman, has his corporate tongue firmly in his virtual cheek. Rather than a work of field recording sourced from the business world, a la the vaporwave subgenre known as mallsoft, Jackman’s work is free of samples, all intended to convey the dizzying world of big business, corporate mergers, and deals discussed over a nice lunch spread. It’s approached in from the perspective of financial success and mutual benefit, rather than one of aggressive takeover. Donovan Hikaru has worn a variety of suits in this vein, such as in the tense ambiance of his two CRS releases, inspired by the shadowy corporation at the center of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. He’s even held a contest where a single limited edition CRS cassette was the prize in a real-world scavenger hunt.

On Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe!, however, the mood is certainly lighter. Following such releases as Corporate Parasailing and Free Market Foreplay, the music is an immediately appealing fusion of downtempo, retro-synth, and electro-tinged jazz. On this release, there’s a tropical feel, for our successful executive is wheeling and dealing in the global market – specifically the tropics. And if there’s some playtime to be had, well, it’s all part of a well-rounded business trip. As you might expect, there’s a fictional corporation here (Trust LLC) as well as an invented island paradise (San Tablos) where promising clients are buttered up, all of which gives Donovan Hikaru a sense of identity – constructed as it may be – beyond the anonymity of many vaporwave artists.

The music moves from the upbeat tropical percussion and saxophone of “Caribbean CEO Package,” which soon shows itself to be the music playing at the airport as our executive arrives, to the electro-bounce retro anthem of “Business Brunch on the Pier.” Jackman quickly proves himself to be a master of pop-style intertwining melody, with short stick-in-your-head sequences of notes that perfectly convey the lure of the open market (and of expensive and leisurely meals). Things wind down with “Hotel Lobby – Afternoon Nap”, with its relaxing piano, light rhythms, and distant sax before the exultant energy of “Celebrating the Merger With Lobster and Steak at Reynaldo’s by the Pier.” The album’s a great listen strictly on its own merits, but the addition of the creatively playful track titles and corporate-handshake concept lofts the album over the top into something irresistible, launching the fun factor into the bright blue and cloudless stratosphere.

There’s more to Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe! than catchy synth riffs and a perfectly honed concept, however. The speak-and-spell-voiced business-channel commentary of “Buying Out the Industry” is ridiculously clever – here’s where the field recording and real-life commercial aspects of vaporwave are turned on their head – while “Rainbow Over San Tablos,” “Into the San Tablos Abyss,” and “Mountain Dreams” prove Jackman is also talented at evocative and beautiful ambiance via synth, horn, and string. Then you’ve got the slight edginess and intrigue of “1 Industrial Park Road” and the lengthy Middle Eastern flavor of “Marrakech Real Estate” to add diversity to what is already a slick package of well-produced tunes. Despite the different feel, tracks such as these fit smoothly into the fast-paced money-driven world of Donovan Hikaru without a hitch.

On paper, an album like Business Travel Bonanza Deluxe! might seem to favor style over substance, but Jackman’s too smart for that. He’s not just a talented producer, but a recording artist who takes risks while not taking himself or his work too seriously. I think that’s where the real appeal of Donovan Hikaru lies – the freedom to experiment while not losing sight of having fun. Do that with a good amount of savvy, and success will soon follow. Isn’t that what a free market is all about?

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Perturbator – The Uncanny Valley

Blood Music (BLOOD 160), 2016

Ah, the 21st century, where everything old is new again. I never thought I’d see a cassette revival – vinyl I get, but cassette? – but here it is. While the merits (or lack thereof) of that archival format is a topic that can be debated elsewhere, there’s been an explosive resurgence of retro-styled electronic music in the last decade or so. Owing partly to the ease of emulation (though many retro artists insist on using original equipment) and partly to the creative rearrangement and recombination that many of these albums are built upon, it’s been quite an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold.

James Kent’s alter ego Perturbator is one of the more noteworthy retro projects, combining the sound of 1980s analog synthesizers with the keen edge of modern production, and the finer art of enhancement through modern styles. The Uncanny Valley is Perturbator’s fourth release, courtesy of Finnish label Blood Music, and it’s arrived in multiple formats, including digital, CD, a few magnificently designed vinyl limited editions, and yes, cassette. The 1980s were a showy and decadent decade, and it’s fitting that The Uncanny Valley has been given a corresponding treatment, especially since the album’s artwork is already draped in succulent neon hues and boldly slashed writing – not to mention the blantantly R-rated image gracing the cover.

Perturbator’s music matches the presentation. It’s brash and energetic, the love-child of Tangerine Dream and modern hard techno, with DNA contributions from 80s synthpop and Vangelis. The opener, “Neo Tokyo,” announces The Uncanny Valley with turbo-charged synthwork and glitched-out percussion. It’s an exhilarating fusion of classic tinny-sounding analog keys and manic electro percussive rhythms. As opening credits go, this one’s a stunner.

Kent is a clever alchemist, however. While it’s clear he could have stayed very comfortably within this glowing zone where Wicked City meets Tron (the original, of course), he’s got more tales to tell. “Weapons for Children” slows the tempo and kicks up the drama, its fuel-injected synths intertwining organically, tempos breaking and resuming in thrill-ride intervals. “Death Squad” is a few degrees heavier, both in structure and atmosphere, with a perfectly placed sequence adding an edge of anxiety befitting the track’s title. There’s an undercurrent of the cinematic, as if The Uncanny Valley was the soundtrack to an 80s tribute film; “Femme Fatale” is thick with backlit urban smoke and sensual intrigue, and is clearly influenced by Vangelis’ classic score for the influential film Blade Runner. “Venger,” a neo-future pop anthem featuring the sultry vocals of Greta Link, is irresistibly catchy and full of interlocking synth hooks; if The Uncanny Valley was a soundtrack, this would be the chart-climbing hit single.

From here, The Uncanny Valley does little to slow its delirious momentum. Inertia-laden tracks such as “Disco Inferno” and “Diabolus Ex Machina” provide a hint to the sexy succubus of the album’s cover, and the unspoken plot reaches a climax on “Assault” and “The Cult of 2112.” It becomes clearer that The Uncanny Valley – named for the strangely detached inhuman appearance of computer-generated human faces, representing things that are not as they appear – is a conceptual work, but the true nature of its meaning is left for us to contemplate. “Souls at Zero” and the closing title track (as in closing credits, of course) are the culmination of the events, the hymn of the wreckage left by the conflict, and the glimmer of hope among those who survived.

Perturbator is not satisfied with mimicry. While Kent does have a special fondness for the era that has influenced his sound, his work isn’t just about nostalgia. The Uncanny Valley is a tribute to the curious edge of the 1980s, when experimentation and pretension began to join hands, but the album is more than this. It’s a period piece drowned in modernity, crowned with heavy doses of creativity and panache. Kent casts a knowing eye on his influences, analyzing them then molding them anew; embracing the original spark and coaxing it to burn with fierce new light. Perturbator is riding the crest of 21st-century synthwave, and The Uncanny Valley is proof that Kent has cemented his place.