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.