Pilotpriest – Trans

bandcamp, 2016

When you listen to Pilotpriest’s album Trans, the cinematic angle is clear. Film often acts as an influence for experimental electronic music circles, but it’s a little different here. Pilotpriest is the musical outlet of Anthony Scott Burns, who is a visual effects artist and filmmaker who has worked on movies such as The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh and the horror anthology Holidays.

Trans is a soundtrack to a science fiction film that exists only in Burns’ mind (and ours, by extension). Despite its lo-fi tendencies and retro-analog sound, the composition is post-modern, bringing to mind genre artists like Oxyd, Polygon, and Forma Tadre. High praise, yes, but Pilotpriest belongs in that conversation, for Trans is a quietly stunning work.

The track that drew me to this album is “Now Be The Light,” an immediately arresting and melancholic space-opera anthem built around a wistful sing-song voice sample. Burns slowly surrounds the sample with a variety of carefully shaped sequences and keyboard chords, anchored by bass-synth and percussive loops, coaxing the track toward thrilling pinnacles before diving into slow-motion near-silence, only to ascend anew like a scintillating digital phoenix. As the track progresses, it always circles back to the little robotic tune, perhaps voiced by some infinitely lonelier cousin of WALL-E. Each component serves as foundation and amplification for this tiny voice, and the creative and technical spark flashes bright and often, gliding gracefully through its passages with the ease and wonder of breathing. This is the kind of track that you can listen to just to appreciate how well everything fits together – it’s neither too long nor too short, neither too experimental nor too predictable, and its sense of myriad rhythms impeccably wrought – but it’s more than its structure, tapping into the shared human experience in a way that all artists strive for but few achieve. For all its disparate parts, “Now Be The Light” is a singular and natural track, the kind that accompanies you through the day and welcomes you each time you plug in to revisit. I have a short list of electronic tracks that I consider perfect, and “Now Be The Light” holds a permanent place on it.

And this is just the beginning. “Now Be The Light” is the second of twelve tracks on Trans, and while the rest of the album never quite reaches the interstellar heights of “Now Be The Light,” Pilotpriest is quickly proven to be no mere one-hit wonder. Trans is a post-industrial classic alongside Oxyd’s Larva, Forma Tadre’s Navigator, and Polygon’s [images], managing a timeless sound with a fresh take on expression and assemblage. Most of the tracks on Trans are over five minutes in length, and all are solemn yet somehow playful outer-space anthems. Slow tempo and untreated piano are commonplace, the latter often twisting through melancholic melodies giving voice to the near-human yearnings of computers tasked to operate defunct and forgotten interstellar ghost ships for eternity, with nothing but their own memories to accompany them. Pilotpriest’s muses are the descendants of Kraftwerk’s playful man-machine, heir to infinite possibility but removed from history by error and circumstance. “Entrance” is particularly effective at expressing this bittersweet sadness, a tone enhanced when Burns’ lost AIs insert fragments of the voices of their long-gone human masters into the music, such as the trip-hoppish IDM hymns “I Am You” and “Skin.” Elsewhere, 4/4 structures are the backbone for “Lipstick” and “Strangle Part Two,” but these are crystalline designs, much too intricate for the raw power of the dancefloor.

Trans is a hidden classic, a burnished gem lost in a corner of the internet. Pilotpriest might not be a well-known name among post-industrial circles, but Burns’ project is more than deserving. Perhaps Trans is a bit too long, owing to the three comparatively rote bonus tracks, and perhaps the tone is a bit static, but when the music is so grounded, satisfying, and consistently brilliant, these issues cease being issues at all. Any album that not only contains a track like “Now Be The Light” but somehow manages to maintain the bar it sets is something rare and special. Pilotpriest is a particularly well-named project. Trans is a deeply reverential work, moving forward while embracing history and mourning its passage.

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Chungking Mansions and Internet Goddess Shinatama – The moonlit chatlogs of a c0mrade

Ailanthus Recordings (AR 108), 2015

“We’re in!”

So declares the enthusiastic and somewhat surprised voice of a nameless young man, sampled in “Unauthorized Backdoor Access,” the opening track of The moonlit chatlogs of a c0mrade. It’s a fitting introduction to what follows: a trip through the mysterious non-world of the internet with the crowded streets of Asia as background, guided by vaporwave heavies Chungking Mansions and Internet Goddess Shinatama. It’s a pulsing, moody, and diverse album, meshing Hong Kong ambience with a variety of modern electronic techniques, while providing fragments of narrative in classic vaporwave style.

Much of the phantom story is hinted at in the track titles: “Ode to Titania,” “Visions of Chung Wan,” “Valuan Nights,” “First Course Sushi Platter for 4.” It’s fleshed out, albeit in skeletal fashion, by liner notes on the Ailanthus Recordings Bandcamp website:

In the darkest deepest chatrooms two shadowy forms communicate in pulses of energy at the speed of light. The two ghosts (a Haughty Goddess of Data and the Spirit of a Drunken Tourism Tycoon) were quarantined in Avast! and subject to a thorough investigation. I, one of these Anonymous Investigators, will now leak these findings to the world at large. The world must know of these Haunted Chatrooms.

Of course, it’s easy to tell who the two personas are: Chungking Mansions and Shinatama. The Investigator is presumed to be the hacker whose voice begins the album. What happens next is really up to the listener; c0mrade is collaborative ambience at its best.

Fortunately, the album is more than mere concept. The styles of the two personas seem made for each other; Chungking Mansion’s sly Far East urban panache is enhanced cleverly by Shinatama’s murky atmospheres and IDM-inspired rhythms. “Oxygenated Baijiu,” with its synthwave-and-downpitched-vocal foundation, is a prime example of this, with the lazy hazy broken-transmission trappings of “Dynasty” not far behind. “Do You Want To See The Ruins My Friend” is deliciously tense, and the looped sing-song vocals and icy aura of “Ode to Titania” is steeped in mystique. In spite of its diverse palette, c0mrade flows as the best soundtracks do, shaping action and forwarding plot, even when said plot is elusive at best.

Compulsively enjoyable and technically proficient, c0mrade gradually increases its hypnotic grasp as it progresses. Its identity, while sparse on detail, is thickly delivered. It appears this was a one-off collaboration, but when it’s pulled off to such a level as it is here, there’s plenty of depth in which to lose oneself. Chungking Mansions and Internet Goddess Shinatama have already proven themselves on an individual scale, but together, they tap into a rarefied realm. Music is still the best medium to provide a profound blurring between the real and the virtual, and albums such as The moonlit chatlogs of a c0mrade are proof.

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.