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.

Skalpel – Transit

PlugAudio (PL02), 2014

Generally, I applaud when artists decide to release their own work. Going independent allows for more freedom, of course, while shouldering the burden of the entire process. The only reservations I have are about the material’s quality and direction; perhaps the artist was splintering away to such a large degree that any new music will sound nothing like the past works I enjoy.

With Skalpel, there were no such reservations. Once they left the pioneering label Ninja Tune, I figured Skalpel dropped off the map for good. Not so. Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudlo released their 2014 album Transit via their own label, PlugAudio, preceded by the Simple EP, which hinted at evolution rather than rebirth. Following the lauded albums Skalpel and Konfusion, two of the finest examples of future jazz to date, Transit reduces the sampling and increases the original production, resulting in arguably the duo’s best release.

As its name implies, Transit is a transition; a moving from one place to another. It can be seen as a departure, but with an uncertain destination. The album is cleverly named, for it is akin to a tour of places as they pass by, like a series of snapshots from a vacation. As with Skalpel’s previous work, you’ll still hear the same plucked bass strings, deft percussion, and looped vocal samples taken from dusty jazz recordings (vinyl-sourced static present and accounted for), but there’s more going on now. Programming touches such as synth sequences and glitch-studded percussion enhance the tracks rather than demanding attention; Skalpel is interested in creating a solid product rather than showing off technical skill, which the duo has tastefully displayed since their first release.

There’s a sun-drenched and distinctly European road-trip flavor in the music that gives Transit newfound appeal and vibrancy. It’s immediately apparent in the opening track, “Siesta,” with its combination of strummed harp-strings and plinking xylophone that create a laid-back, somehow coastal vibe. The horns and spliced vocal samples are present as well, but the feel is a far cry from the black-and-white dance kitsch of classic Skalpel tracks from the past (“1958”).

Skalpel doesn’t entirely abandon its roots, however. Tracks such as “Simple” and “Switch” fit comfortably with prior material, but one of the best things about Transit is how smooth the transition has been. “Snow” is calm and meditative, and the plucked guitar of “Saragossa” is playfully engaging. The vocal samples remain the focus in places, such as the lovely female croon of “Sea” and the soulful male loop of “Surround’; while this technique isn’t new for Skalpel, the effect certainly is. (And yes, in case you noticed, the names of eleven of the thirteen tracks begin with the letter “s.”)

Skalpel is still cool, hip, and slyly self-aware, but their idea of the self has expanded beyond the art-deco dancefloor to the outside world. While the added electronics may turn off some electro-jazz purists, Transit is an example of accomplished artists who have committed to expanding their sound while preserving their identity’s core. Skalpel can no longer be pegged as strictly electro-jazz. Transit announces there’s more to them than mere cut-and-paste panache.

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.

2814 – Rain Temple

Dream Catalogue (DREAM_777), 2016

I can only imagine what it must be like for an artist (or artists) who create a landmark album. 2814, a collaboration between two vaporwave heavies, HKE (formerly Hong Kong Express) and t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者, released the album 新しい日の誕生, translated as Birth of a New Day, in 2015 – an album that many credit with starting the explosion of vaporwave. How do you follow up a classic like that? It’s a boggling prospect.

Rain Temple is that follow-up, and while it will likely always exist in the shadow of its predecessor, it’s a phenomenal album in its own right. Shedding much of its previous vaporwave trappings, both in the kanji-less titles and in its sound, 2814’s new album, available from vaporwave powerhouse label Dream Catalogue as digital, CD, or LP, is an exercise in concept-driven electronic ambient that is the work of two masters of their craft. I wonder if Rain Temple might be an attempt to break into a larger audience, but while the music has lost some of its experimental edge, that’s not to say that the album isn’t inspired.

As with their previous releases, the center of 2814 features the minimal alien melodies of t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 and the synthetic rhythms of HKE. “Eyes of the Temple” is a showcase for this stylistic fusion, with a mystery-laden sequence of melody anchored by a slow glitch-laden beat. It’s an attractive and effective formula, and is enhanced by sampled snatches of spoken word and soaring synth-driven ambiance. It’s quite cinematic and wondrous, and given what appears to be the alien concept of the album, a fitting introduction.

Rain Temple appears to be the soundtrack to an invocation of some external presence, whether extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional. Sounds of water abound, whether the patter of rain or the gurgle of a fountain, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the album’s early moments are the background to a ritual or invocation, an attempt to establish contact with the Other. In spite of its thick aura of mystery, Rain Temple is not an album of darkness, but rather of the unknown. Judging by the progression of the track titles: “Guided by Love,” “Transference,” “This Body,”, “Contact,” and “Inside the Sphere,” it’s easy to follow the course of events: the invitation sent from the temple has been received and answered, and those conducting the ritual have been spirited away to another realm and time. 2814’s music interprets this as a wonderful event, something welcomed and full of majesty, perhaps borne along the flow of water and rain. Considered this way, the album becomes quite existential and aesthetic; if this is the sound of first contact, it’s anything but a frightful or threatening meeting.

The nature of the tracks support the concept admirably. “Lost in a Dream” is an aquatic aria, where drifting wordless female vocals call through the depths. “Guided by Love,” my favorite track on the album, is a prime example of how t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 is able to conjure such profound implication and atmosphere through a deceptively simple series of notes. It’s instantly and deeply transporting as the best ambient, and enveloped in heartbreaking and lush atmosphere. I imagine that this is the final and irresistible part of the temple’s ritual: a siren’s call into beyond that cannot be ignored, for the emotion is simply too hypnotic. The foundation of “Transference” is an echoing guitar riff that sounds straight from Cocteau Twins-era Robin Guthrie; it’s Victorialand, updated for the 21st century via a wrapping of ambient IDM. “This Body” is the closest 2814 comes to the glorious blanketing amorphousness of 新しい日の誕生, all muted warbles and pitched and patterned glitches; it’s a stunning track, if a bit familiar.

Rain Temple reaches a crescendo on its final two tracks. “Contact” is every bit as celestial and celebratory as the title implies, the music thickly saturated by the otherworldly. “Inside the Sphere” is as fine an example of glitch-meets-ambient as you’re likely to hear, and that’s before the drowned piano emerges to add a layer of profound emotion. At the conclusion of the temple’s ritual, it’s easy to imagine those responsible being spirited away to an unknown realm by whatever entity they have summoned: transcendence has, at long last, been achieved.

For all its deft execution, Rain Temple doesn’t feature the same strangeness that marks 2814’s previous releases. I wonder how devoted fans might react to the album, as it’s arguably much more an ambient album than a vaporwave one, and keeps the bulk of its creativity in its concept rather than the music itself. If 2814 is trying to expand its audience, it’s hard to imagine them producing a finer attempt. Niche fans should prepare themselves for a potential letdown, but let’s be honest, it’s a tall order to match the level of 新しい日の誕生. Aside from these inevitable comparisons, however, Rain Temple is, ultimately, a massively enjoyable ambient record.

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?

Chungking Mansions – ShowView

Dream Catalogue (DREAM_92), 2015

Vaporwave can be a daunting thing to break into. The bands are usually anonymous, and the band names and album and track titles are often composed solely of Asian characters. Add the large and still developing subgenres that vary wildly in style and composition, along with the rapid stream of new releases, and keeping up is a demanding but potentially heavily rewarding proposition.

I’m a relatively recent vaporwave convert, so while I’m no expert, one of the first albums that got me hooked was ShowView by Chungking Mansions, and I still consider it to be quite a fitting starting point for those interested by this most curious of genres. It touches on several of vaporwave’s subgenres while still managing to maintain a cohesive feel – no small task, given the breadth of styles dwelling under the vaporwave umbrella. On ShowView, first and foremost, there’s the heavy modern Asian mood so integral to the vaporwave experience – Hong Kong in this case – from which the project draws inspiration and source material. You’ll get Asian jingles, with the vocals downpitched and melodies stretched into hazy melancholic bliss. You’ll hear jazzed-up horns and bass, urban-soaked trip-hop, and field recordings of airports, nightlife, city streets, malls, and commercials, all of it cut up, reversed, reverbed, and filtered. Vaporwave is often a celebration of consumer culture, but can also be deeply critical and cynical. Most of it skews towards an Asian urban setting, reflecting both the energy and the vapidness of the city center. Chungking Mansions has delved into all on its debut album ShowView, a remarkably assured and confident entry into the hard-to-nail-down vaporwave style.

ShowView displays a lot of these different yet related perspectives. In many ways, I see it as Vaporware 101; an introduction to the vast array of styles and sensibilities the genre dips into, as well as a hint as its conceptual potential. You’re likely to find entire vaporwave albums built on any one of the styles featured in any of the eighteen tracks on the album (it’s common for vaporwave tracks to be on the shorter side; only one here is over four minutes long). And yet, Chungking Mansions has made this mashed-up and fractured example of 21st-century Hong Kong lifestyle to be a highly listenable experience, providing a keenly conceived sonic portrait of the place it represents. Even though I continue to explore the neon-drenched depths of vaporwave on a daily basis, this is an album I keep returning to, because it’s such a finely focused yet varied example of what the genre aims to achieve.

It remains to be seen whether the retro-futuristic, internet-obsessed, cyber-punk realm of vaporwave is going to stick, or if it ends up morphing into something utterly unlike what it sounds like today. Even an album that sounds as cutting-edge as ShowView can sound basic when compared to some of the more recent abstract efforts that vaporwave continues to create. This album is a fitting portrait for the current high-speed quick-shifting generation, in spite of its constant and curious cultural backward glancing. On ShowView, Chungking Mansions has captured the immersive aesthetic of ambient, the energy of glitch and IDM, the chilled vibe of downtempo, the slyness of trip-hop, the immediate honesty of field recordings, and the playful quirk of Asian commerce into a single heady package. Its scope alone makes it a must-listen, but like vaporwave itself, there’s much more here than is readily apparent. ShowView may be somewhat baffling at first listen, but it quickly sinks its hooks into you, and you can’t help but explore it. If you find this album to be even the slightest bit intriguing, it’s just the tiniest glimpse into the hypnotic and mysterious urban maze that is the vaporwave universe.