Gyoza District – Gyoza District

Adhesive Sounds (AS119), 2017

The first release from Gyoza District doesn’t sound like a debut. On one hand, this isn’t surprising, because it’s a side project from veteran vaporwave producer Cvltvre, but the sound design is something new. While this self-titled album retains the Asian influence marking a good deal of vaporwave, Gyoza District has captured an elusive sense of concept and place while also providing a quality listening experience.

The atmosphere is the strongest feature of Gyoza District. The album can perhaps be best described as a laid-back combination of minimal IDM and lo-fi trip-hop, and remains consistent throughout its ten tracks. A strong rhythmic foundation forms the base, but it’s a fragile and skeletal thing, filling the role of outline for the music-box chime-work and analog-Asian melodies that give Gyoza District its unique dreamy urban feel. Adding to this are a series of vocal Asian-language samples that provide additional character. This is neither a dense city-sourced ambient experiment nor edgy street-wise Asian-gangster soundtrack, but an exercise in a relaxed and reflective vibe; urban yet never aggressive, fringed with melancholy yet consistently wistful.

Gyoza District isn’t a long album, but that’s not a mark against it. As its template is quite specific – the beats, instrumentation, and general structure of the ten brief tracks remain largely unchanged – it runs the risk of becoming repetitive. Fortunately, the tracks are cleverly planned, encouraging looped listens, and the creativity is allowed to flourish within the intentionally limited template. Despite the singular sound and sparse instrumentation, the music is smooth and stylish while retaining an elegantly understated edge. The title track is a leisurely meander accompanied by cricket-song and buried crowd noise, with a muffled twinging string as your guide; “Shibuya” plays off this template with a decidedly urban vibe, but without resorting to grit and grime, while “Yodo-Gawa” takes a quieter path along small-village fairways. Details coloring the world are noted by the listener, gauged against their backdrop, contemplated, and ultimately appreciated; Gyoza District, for all its minimalism, is headphone tourism at its most effective.

At the start, Gyoza District is purely electronic, its minimalism deliciously restrained. The miniature clockwork taiko-glitch of “Dimensions” is echoed by the hidden music-box chimes of “Yumeno Park,” the similarities perhaps made more admirable due to the reused musical elements; the tracks feel nothing alike. The album’s last few tracks move the strings into the foreground – “Setonakai” and “Rei” are particularly effective – while the electronics bubble peacefully underneath. The album closes with the surreal and beautiful “Lonely God,” the strings and synths working together in quiet harmony to produce a more amorphous and spiritual aesthetic.

Gyoza District is remarkably grounded, neither too airy nor too melancholy, and is wisely balanced thanks to Cvltvre’s veteran touch. It switches gears from a somewhat mechanical beginning to a more organic feel as the album progresses, all the while staying close to its foundation. The ambient samples add depth to the sparse but deft instrumentation, but the nebulous urban subtlety is never compromised. This was an album that settled into my consciousness easily and gradually, and once it did, it nestled comfortably, as if it had found a new home, and I welcomed it.

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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.

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?