Ocean Shores – Luminous Romance

Illuminated Paths (IP-382), 2017

Sliding between genre borders, Luminous Romance from Ocean Shores is a wondrous and intriguing piece of work. Buried under lo-fi static like the best mallsoft, defined by simple looped retro-plunderphonic melody, and versatile enough to dwell in the background or as primary audio, it’s an album that shows a marked evolution from earlier releases.

As its name implies, Ocean Shores aims at capturing the relaxing sound of beach-music ambience. Most tracks feature a guitar or horn melody that drifts through loops with airy ease; some of these tunes may be recognizable as instrumental easy-listening versions of pop songs, but with Luminous Romance, Ocean Shores has either nabbed from the fringes of obscurity, or is now using original compositions. I suspect the latter. Gone, too, are the well-used “weather channel” samples and broken transmission structure; it’s now mostly about the music alone.

Mostly. One of the techniques that Ocean Shores has used is manipulation of static; at unanticipated intervals, the music will become even more drowned and fuzzy than it usually does. This effect plays a couple of important roles. First, it adds a layer of drama that keeps one’s ear guessing. More impressively, it creates a sense of place: the changes could be caused by an old-school radio losing its signal, or by the natural distortion of the listener diving underwater, whether the radio is poolside, at the edge of the beach, or on the deck of a boat drifting lazily in the shallows. It’s much more organic now, and as a result, more effective.

“Return” is vintage Ocean Shores, enhanced and refined, with a perfectly timed break and guitar chords that don’t stick to your brain quite enough, bearing you along the gauzy summer afternoon. “Not Enough Time in the World” starts hesitantly, as if the radio is searching for a clear signal, then locks in, the saxophone capturing timeless connection and possibility – this is a luminous romance after all. The wonderfully loungey “Perfume and Cigarettes” perfectly illustrates the unknown potential of new romance, while the repeating (and irresistible) melody would appear to hint that the whole thing is ephemeral, despite its initial allure. Similarly, the flamenco-style string-plucks of “Meaningless” are a nod to the joys of the superficial, and the links to intentionally soporific mallsoft are impossible to ignore. Well played, Ocean Shores.

Luminous Romance ventures beyond the gauzy sands and waters, however. The album’s second half delves into the experimental. The bittersweet synths of “Window of Opportunity” carry a tinge of regret – one of the first times Ocean Shores has let it slip – while the loops retain the mallsoft connection. “Patience” is its atmospheric cousin, with light congos and airy keyboards wavering with a touch of shadow. The metaphorical sunset continues with the chimes of “Closing Time,” as beautiful as they are melancholic, before the downtempo guitar of “There is No Escape” sadly watches the vestiges of light shimmer on the shrinking waves.

Luminous Romance can surely be labeled idealistic – a large part of the attraction – but there’s a retro kitsch that makes the whole thing just a tiny bit insincere, and endearingly so. Is nostalgia’s hold as strong when you know it’s nostalgia? I, for one, am unsure. I’m far more certain, however, that Ocean Shores is a sneakily talented assembler of vibe, with just a bit of commentary gliding beneath the glossy surface. Come to Luminous Romance for the bright melody, sun-soaked atmosphere, and radio-broadcast audio trickery, but stay for the passing hints of buried meaning.

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.

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.

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?

蜃気楼MIRAGE – Hotel By Night

bandcamp, 1999

Upon first listen, Hotel By Night from 蜃気楼MIRAGE appears to be little more than a nice  collection of moody and relaxing electro-jazz tunes. There are light synths and electronic percussion lounging in the backdrop of subdued saxophone and piano; think of a less spliffed-out version of classic Thievery Corporation and you’d be on the right track. Peel back the slyness, however, and you’ll discover there’s quite a bit more going on.

蜃気楼MIRAGE, which translates roughly as “miragesync,” seems to be something of a prognosticator. The release of Hotel By Night contains the sense of place and personality of vaporwave despite predating the style’s birth by more than a decade. There’s an entire sub-genre of vaporwave based on elevator and shopping mall music, drawing from the numbing ambiance of such “muzak” in a tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink manner – sometimes to the point of being dismissively critical of the consumerism involved. While Hotel By Night resembles this type of ironically subtle music, it focuses on the ambiance and half-told stories that also mark a number of vaporwave releases.

蜃気楼MIRAGE includes a variety of Japanese-language samples in a handful of tracks, adding a human element to the music. The horns are never intrusive or manic; the music is clearly intended to be the sound of a jazz quartet quietly creating a luxuriant atmosphere in a corner of a dimly lit hotel bar. The tracks on Hotel By Night are all under two and a half minutes in length, but this creates the sense of the listener passing through the darkened lobby, glimpsing a couple in hushed and intimate conversation, which catching a snatch of midnight music wafting from the open door of the bar. In this sense, 蜃気楼MIRAGE has created a magnificent piece of ambient music, as the sense of identity and place is unusually strong; it’s not just about the music, as well-done as it is, but about how it communicates a larger and more personal fiction.

One particularly effective example of this is “goodbye,” in which a woman whispers what are almost certainly painful departing words to her forlorn and now-former lover, perhaps overheard in pieces from across a near-abandoned lobby at two in the morning. There are no horns here, just minimal lo-fi keyboards and guitar tracing lonely, highly cinematic melody. At the track’s close, the woman breathes “ciao” with a near-palpable combination of heartache and conviction, and we’re left only with that sensation. Our imagination is required to paint the rest of the picture, if we so desire, or we can just let the emotion define it.

A hotel by night is a place of relaxed luxury, and can also be a place of secrets best kept in the shadows of expensive rented rooms and silent corridors. Within this surprisingly dense twenty-four minutes is a world of lazily curling cigarette smoke, half-empty tumblers of scotch, loosened silk ties, and lipstick-smudged napkins. The horns are perfectly pitched and paced, the electronics suitably mixed down, and the atmosphere as thick as the velvet night outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. 蜃気楼MIRAGE is an anonymous project, but it’s fitting: both the project and its music hint at something beyond the surface. At a mere twenty-four minutes, Hotel By Night may be short on content, but it’s a powerfully realized and densely atmospheric sliver of the hidden corners of urban high-rise nocturnal life.