Western Digital – Lost Signal

Fantasy Deluxe (FNTSY21), 2016

Lost Signal, the new album by Western Digital, is twelve minutes long.

Yes, you read correctly: the entire ten-track album totals twelve minutes. The longest track, “beyond,” lasts all of one minute and fifty-four seconds.

But this should not deter you from it. I was certainly skeptical going in. Little did I anticipate that Lost Signal would soon reveal itself as one of the most mysterious and unusual pieces of audio I’ve heard in some time. The track titles – “calling,” “m shaped cave,” “dune,” “appear” – provide curious hints without divulging their meaning too easily. There’s plenty of room for interpretation; while Western Digital has provided an outline, it’s one of the sparsest I’ve ever encountered. It’s the audio equivalent of the infamous video clip from the film Ringu – haunting, deeply hypnotic, and full of obscure, linked symbolism.

Lost Signal is thick with mystique. There’s something profoundly alien at work during its twelve minutes. Each moment is draped in a blanket of muffled static and down-tuned distortion; Western Digital has used this technique before, most notably in the broken-transmission masterpiece Wasted Digital, but with Lost Signal, all sampled source material has been removed, leaving behind a surreal bed of warped bizarreness that casts its brief yet potent spell on one’s imagination. I find myself returning to Lost Signal time and again, hoping to detect some minute hint in the dense fog of swirling tones, eerie snippets of melody, and embedded loops. Or, if nothing else, I carry on formulating my own explanations. I can’t help but search for patterns. Considered from this perspective, Western Digital has smoothly delved into one of the most curious parts of the human psyche – the ingrained search for meaning.

I wonder if Lost Signal would be a better album if it was longer, or if its mysteries were explained in a clearer manner. Somehow, I doubt it. There are connections here, tenuous as they may seem, but that’s where the cooperative experience comes in; to develop those bridges however the listener chooses. When looped, Lost Signal is easily as immersive as most longform pieces, though I find myself wishing the tracks bled into each other rather than having traditional breaks in between. Given the effectiveness of the album overall, however, this is a negligible factor.

Lost Signal is exactly what it is described to be: a collection of scattered and related sonic fragments. Think of it as a (very) stripped-down version of Cities Last Broadcast’s The Cancelled Earth – the remnants of something long-forgotten, the nature of which we can only guess at. It’s amazing to realize that a twelve-minute album is one of the best and most interesting works of experimental conceptual ambient I’ve heard in quite a while.

Niteffect – Vanish

Kreislauf Records (Kreislauf 161), 2016

The unsung master of lurking trip-hop returns, with eyes now turned to the city’s lofty towers rather than downcast on its broken streets. Niteffect no longer snarls and slouches along back alleys in search of nefarious dealings, but has edged into the bright open air, blinking uncertainly as bits of its former shadowed shell trail behind it. Vanish marks Niteffect’s first step into unfamiliar surroundings, a freshly undertaken journey toward a destination far from its origins.

Niteffect’s reinvention is immediately evident in the bittersweet nostalgia of “Swt Mthr” – very likely a shortened “sweet mother”- drawn with personal intimacy via piano that speaks of tribute and loss in its evocative lines. Niteffect has announced its rebirth clearly and boldly. No longer does its sound bristle with the narrow-eyed suspicion and brash bravado of the city’s underbelly. It’s brighter, yes, but not naively so; it still regards the world through a lens roughened by asphalt and concrete, but now with hints of sunlight teasing at the edges.

Vestiges of the past (the sublimely murky Dark Glow) are still present, but their participation is muted. The backing keys of “Loop for Die” twist down into a grainy bed as the track ends, as if Niteffect is actively hesitant to indulge his past tendencies. While the track never escalates fully, a muffled xylophone-like sequence forms the foundation of “Hide and Seek,” along with a minimal and restrained drum track. Likewise, the skewed plucked bass and wavering sequences of “Devil May Care” sound like a prologue to something darkly streetwise, but the line is never crossed, imparting anticipation of action that doesn’t quite materialize. These remnants of rawness keep the warm analog sound of Vanish grounded with just enough grit; it’s honest in a way that similar IDM-based electronica struggles to emulate.

As Vanish nears its too-soon conclusion, NE seems to feel more comfortable with its new incarnation. “Nightfall” (rather than the expected “Nitefall”) is particularly effective, with a warbled loop shimmering among a delicately treated vocal sample. This is the epitome of the new Niteffect; tentative, but clever and assured, stepping into its new cityscape with wary confidence. The beat lurches more fully on “Lifecycle,” recalling the dirty glory of its past, but framed by flickering treatments that elevate the track into the clearing sky. The final track, “Hiatus,” is anchored by hushed organ chords, while the fluttering sparse percussion darts and flits amongst shimmering sequences. Niteffect is as sly as ever, but more refined, with a heightened awareness of the world beyond the streets.

Vanish feels transitory, but that may be due to its brevity. As few of its eight tracks break three minutes in length, it’s really a long EP rather than a proper album. One of the best features about past releases was generous length, allowing Niteffect ample room to experiment within its established parameters. Vanish hints at an unfettered direction for the project, but feels slightly unfinished, as if it’s an addenda to the body existing work rather than a full-fledged release. I, for one, hope that Vanish isn’t just a tantalizing side-path for Niteffect. Perhaps it’s a sign of its sparseness, but every time Vanish reaches its finish, I feel there’s still a chapter or two remaining. The real reason, however, is obvious: Vanish is so well-wrought and satisfying, I simply want more of it.

Haircuts for Men – You Can Trust Me

DMT Records (DMTREC096), 2016

There’s a fine line between repetition and maintaining a particular vibe. Variation based a theme runs the risk of reducing the desired effect when drawn out over time, much like a favorite meal loses something after repeated indulgences. For a recording artist, it must be a difficult concept to pin down: stay the course, and the music may be marked as unadventurous; stray too far, and the original meaning may be lost.

Then there is the rare occasion where it all comes together; as close to the ideal as one could hope for. You Can Trust Me may not feature the best work from Haircuts for Men, but it is the most centered. The project has a history of producing an alluring mix of groove-heavy beats and electronic jazz, sheathed in atmosphere that slides easily from luxuriant to quirky, sometimes within the same track. Smoothness is common among Haircuts for Men’s discography, but it often shares album space with manic free-form percussion, odd experimentation, or bursting sparks of energy (and sometimes all three). This unexpectedness is an important part of the project’s draw, but there are times when the potently created mood changes skin a bit too quickly.

This is not the case on You Can Trust Me, a perfectly paced and plotted five-track EP that focuses solely on laid-back slithering trip-hop percussion, fog-thick urban atmosphere, and minimal treated piano, all painted in shifting strokes of midnight neon. Each track fits comfortably and smartly, five fingers of the highest quality of perfectly padded glove; an instantly bonding second skin. From track to track, there are slight differences in tempo and effects, along with an array of incidental guitar and sampled sighs, but the mood never wavers, from the sly brooding warmth that blossoms from the opening moments until its delectable close. The final track, “明るい光と蒸気のフラッシュ”, is the EP’s smoky crown jewel. A gracefully spacious piano sequence, draped in hazy reverb, recalls the best work of Harold Budd and George Winston, while the slinky drums, mournful vocal samples, and electronic ambiance mesh organically into a nocturnal dirge of longing and hope. Haircuts for Men has an enviable number of near-perfect tracks sprinkled throughout its discography, and this one, rife with head-nodding heartache, is right at the top of the list.

With You Can Trust Me, Haircuts for Men is in perfect Harmony with itself. It is the ideal length – less would leave one slighted, while any more would be dangerously lingering – and has the most consistently realized identity of any Haircuts for Men release. The project has never before reached such a level of emotional depth, nor achieved such a singular balance between the energy of percussive-based jazz and the immersive and emotive nature of ambient. The keyboards are firmly delicate, the drumming buoyant without drowning, and the melodies drift at the perfect distance.

The hypnotic aura of the night city hides precious moments of clarity, where people and buildings and streets fall into place, becoming part of one another under a watchful skyline. Haircuts for Men has captured these elusive fragments here, in all their fleeting half-lit intimacy: a frozen moment of frame-grabbed crowds and rain-dampened gridlock; the mysterious patterns of darkened and brightly lit skyscraper windows; the face of a loved one streaked by light from the streets below. For all its qualities of concept and execution, for how effortlessly it skirts along the knife-edge between variation and atmosphere, and for how damn right it feels, You Can Trust Me is as near-perfect a slice of trip-hop down-tempo as you can ever expect to hear.

Leisure Centre – High Fashion

Adhesive Sounds (AS076), 2016

One of the things that makes mallsoft an interesting genre is the crowd-watching ambiance. When it’s done well – and it’s especially important for mallsoft to be produced at a high level of audio engineering, otherwise the purpose of it is crippled – it’s one of the most immersive subgenres of vaporwave, if not ambient music as a whole. To be able to create a specific type of audio image, particularly one that succeeds at mimicking the experience of wandering through a shopping mall, or just sitting, listening to the drifting muzak and experiencing the randomness of crowds, takes strong technical skill as well as a keen sense of aesthetics. Palm Mall by 猫 シ Corp is arguably one of the best pure examples of mallsoft, but others have taken the formula and tweaked it for their own expression.

I didn’t much care for High Fashion at first. Leisure Centre’s first release is very clearly mallsoft, but with an important difference: rather than the crowd ambiance at the forefront, it’s been moved to the background, while the musical element has become the focus. It took me a bit of time to adjust to this new interpretation, but once I got used to it, I realized that what Leisure Centre has done is just as worthy of praise as anything in the subgenre.

High Fashion is ten tracks of versatile and unintrusive ambient, with the noise of the crowds swirling just below the surface. The field recordings are always present, becoming more audible at times, while staying in the echoing distance at others. This technique gives the album a three-dimensional feel, as if each track is from a different store or particular area of what must be a massive indoor shopping complex indeed. The music does contain the light airy melodies so common to shopping-conscious vaporwave, with minimal melodies that float lazily through your mind days after listening. My favorite of these is “ピーク業務時間”, which I’m sure will rise to the surface of my conscious years from now, and I’ll wonder where I’d been when I heard it.

Leisure Centre doesn’t stop there. You’ll hear downtempo electro-style basslines, harps, dreamily wandering French female singing, slowly shuffling percussion, lonely guitar plucking, and a variety of delicate synthwork. High Fashion would be a wonderful album just on the merits of its music alone, but the constantly shifting ocean of crowd noise adds an entire layer of ambient immersion, moving the album into a completely different musical territory. Seamless ambience can’t be taken for granted, and when’s it’s connected to highly effective music as it is here, the effectiveness instantly jumps a few levels.

Once I got the hang of what Leisure Centre did, High Fashion became a playlist mainstay for far longer than I anticipated. It’s carefully and cleanly assembled, always with the bigger picture in mind. Adhesive Sounds has become one of my favorite labels, and with albums as focused and hypnotic as High Fashion, it’s no surprise. Leisure Centre’s wonderfully conceived and organically executed debut has vaulted up my best-of-the-year list in short order.