Chungking Mansions – 安全出口EXIT空间和时间

Dream Catalogue (DREAM_110), 2015

Language can pose a barrier, especially when it’s presented in an inscrutable or indecipherable manner. Take Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example: symbols carrying meaning that can only be understood by experts. But on the other hand, a series of symbols can invite curiosity, for the message they hide is only a mystery waiting to be unlocked. Or, you can leave the mystery unsolved, and allow your mind to interpret it in its own way.

Submitted for one’s burgeoning curiosity is 安全出口EXIT空间和时间, the second symbol-ridden album from Chungking Mansions. If you’re familiar with Asian dialects, you might be able to detect a clue of the album’s identity, but it’s ultimately unnecessary, for the music itself carries wordless meaning that anyone can understand.

Following the outstanding vaporwave effort ShowView, Chungking Mansions has retained some of that curious subgenre’s characteristics, but 安全出口EXIT空间和时间 sees the project moving into uncharted territory. You’ll still hear the warped samples, muted urban ambiance, and strong Asian atmosphere, but the surreal sense and variety has been increased, along with a cohesion that winds its way through the seventeen tracks from start to finish.

This is a soundtrack, but a soundtrack to what, exactly? Bypassing the language, it’s open for discussion. Here’s where Chungking Mansions delves into the potential of ambient, by letting the listener become an integral part of the experience. While it might be tough to imagine the setting to be somewhere other than Hong Kong or Taiwan, owing to the numerous pipes and strings present throughout the album, enough room has been left to use the template for any number of imagined circumstances. Chungking Mansions has proven a master at evoking the nocturnal, neon-drenched mood of the Chinese city, but now, the boundary has been expanded.

One example of this is “互動導遊機器人,” with a downtempo beat framed by smoky piano and delicate keyboard. There’s not an inch of Asian influence to be found, but the track is still a deeply effective and evocative piece of assembled atmosphere. “In The Eyes Of Vashti’s Owl -☏-「古普韦布洛人」” has the same effect, but attains it through oddly calming loops in a beatless ambient framework. “Gare d’Europa” is a brash piece of downtempo, riddled with broken samples and choral loops, while the truly bizarre tapestry of animal sounds and tribal percussion of “Omaha’s Zoo虚拟旅游” hints at a place where only the most unusual beasts are kept. The album closes with “格利澤581d” and the wonderfully titled “ShΛfts Of Light Inside The Museum,” two strangely beautiful selections of deftly crafted and memorable ambiance.

ShowView was a masterfully created display of vaporwave verve that remains one of the highlights of the vaunted Dream Catalogue label, but 安全出口EXIT空间和时间 exists on another plane entirely. While there’s plenty of familiar urban vibe to be heard, presented to enhanced effect, Chungking Mansions has gone outside the standards to create an album full of memorable passages that transport you to a unique place of strangeness and wonder, far beyond the world we know. Sure, you can translate the titles if you like, but it’s not necessary. When an album contains music as brilliantly composed as this, no words are needed.


Vitaly Maklakov & Lefterna – Solar Mycelium

Ostroga Records (OTR-069), 2016

It’s one thing to put together a successful ambient album. It’s quite another to tap into the mind of the listener, to make him or her forget that they’re listening, and provide a doorway into a synthetic mode of consciousness. I have often thought that the best ambient albums are those that provide not just an unexpected technical experience, but a form of mental escapism that walks a fine line between subtle guidance and allowing enough freedom for the listener to collaborate on the creation of something beyond just the sounds. Inspired by the ambiance, the listener molds an imaginary world; a unique imaginary state that can be revisited time and again, sometimes with different results.

Solar Mycelium is among the rare breed of ambient works that achieves both states. Lefterna (Boban Ristevski) and Vitaly Maklakov have fused minimal electronic drone and field recording into an exploration of the unseen world that flows all around us. The album begins with “Fairy Rings,” in which a gentle bed of static buoys a series of quiet metallic creaks and scrapes. As the track progresses, you can feel the heat of summer rising from the ground, and the sounds shift into the noise of insects on a heavy, lazy, dream-invoking afternoon. There’s just enough evolution to keep the track from becoming mechanical, which is vital in an organic framework such as this.

“Cradle of the Information Snare” is a tad heavier and darker, with odd sampled warbles replacing the field recording, but the drowsy hypnotic effect is the same. Much similar ambient music that leans on such a minimal structure often fades into the background, and the bond between mood and listener dissolves. Not here.

The final two tracks show Ristevski and Maklakov indulging their deep-listening and longform muses, and over the thirty-one combined minutes, Solar Mycelium reaches its surreal peak. The title track is thick with strangeness despite its simple structure; it’s easy to imagine the air about you dotted with invisible fairies flitting and darting about, but this is no wispy aria. The odd buzzes and tiny buried whines ground the track and shroud it in hazy mystery, with a tinge of shadow tracing the edges. It’s a haunting piece of work that displays a delicate balance of its components without losing sight of the overall structure. At nineteen and a half minutes, “Fluorescent Landscape” is the album’s longest, and while the distortion is enhanced, the aesthetic is the same. It’s not quite as trance-inducing as the previous track, as its sonic range is wider, but the patterns of hidden static pops keep the immersion high for its duration.

Albums in the mold of Solar Mycelium are easy to come by these days, but precious few walk the tightrope between overbearing and inconsequential as surely as this one does. Deftly placed between active collaboration and consuming escapism, this unusual album nails the elusive state sought by so many similar artists. Maklakov and Ristevski might not blow your ears away with studio trickery, but that’s not their goal. For a strikingly creative minimal ambient experience that gently treads the waters of the deep subconscious, I haven’t heard an album all year that equals the strangely mythical poise of this one.

Western Digital – Wasted Digital

Fantasy Deluxe, 2016

Imagine that it’s the middle of the night. You can’t sleep, and you wander the halls of your apartment building. The blue glow of a television flickers underneath the closed doors of the other units, and if you pause, you might be able to hear snatches of late-night programming: muffled voices, looping jingles of channels that have gone off the air, wisps of infomercials and 24-hour weather channels. Snippets of broadcast culture. As you stand there in the dim corridor, you might feel a sense of displacement, and perhaps a slight hint of voyeurism. Perhaps the inhabitants are sleeping, basking in the light of the screen. Maybe, you begin to think, you could go back to your own apartment, tune in, and fall asleep just like them.

Western Digital has captured this strange televised half-aware concept on the album Wasted Digital. It’s a clever title, for the bits and pieces are broadcasted detritus, throwaway passages intended to fill the late-night void. And yet, as Western Digital so deftly shows, there are moments of emotion and beauty to be experienced, in the sunless hours of the deep night. Maybe you’ve awakened to a screen of static, or some unanticipated and partly haunting program; it causes a unique feeling of soporific disorientation.

This begs the question: why would you want to listen to an album of such randomly assembled pieces? Some of the music is beautiful. The lonely Western guitar of “Hard Drive Haze” and the stirring horn and bass of “What Will Tomorrow Bring?” are sure to create an emotional connection. The collection of sampled melodies, using a variety of instruments, are merged with original electronics into a collage of static-drowned phantom music that drifts and floats like disembodied ghosts. Adding a level of humanity and immediacy is a series of sampled voices, sourced from news broadcasts, self-help infomercials, and obscure films. The fusion of these elements results in a deeply effective ambient atmosphere that mashes up the subgenres of vaporwave, plunderphonics, lofi, broken transmission, and even mallsoft (the track “Ghosts in the Plaza Mist” is as good an example of this as any you’ll hear) into a unique and profoundly evocative and memorable album.

Western Digital has done something rare. In a peek at how the project was able to create its sonic portrait, there’s a untreated version of the track “Broadcast Glow” called “Static Death” in which the buried audio filters have been removed, leaving the track’s core plain to hear. When compared with the finished version that begins Wasted Digital, the difference in technique is obvious. As a finishing touch, the final of the twenty-three tracks is the twelve-minute “Broken Transmission,” a long-form effort named for a peculiar subgenre that mimics channel-surfing through late-night TV channels, complete with beds of static separating each section as the channel is changed. This TV is an old analog vacuum tube with rabbit ears, to be sure. Anyone who’s ever watched TV at 2am in an insomniac haze will appreciate this track.

Wasted Digital isn’t just a curated and spliced procession of sampled commercials, although such albums do exist and can provide quite an effective listening experience. The creativity and skill with which Western Digital has pieced the album together elevates it into a strange and surreal realm of shadowed midnight rooms lit in shifting patterns from the screen, with muted audio leaking into the ether. It is both a critique of modern culture and an appreciation of it, and also allows the listeners the opportunity to drift quietly and silently through our media-soaked air, examining the curious and often comforting isolationism, along with the hypnotic effect of the irresistible siren call of the television screen. Cultural commentary, profoundly immersive ambiance, and engaging melodies that float aimlessly through your head like traces of digital clouds…..Western Digital has crafted one of the best albums to come out of the vaporwave movement. Plug in and check out.