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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Off Land – Microcosm

Jerky Oats Records (JOAT030), 2011

Infinity moves inward as well as out. As one journeys into the endless reaches of the universe, so too can one venture past the subatomic level of matter, moving ever further into the internal. Tim Dwyer tackles this two-sided infinity on Microcosm, an eighty-minute collection of minimal ambient fringed with elements of glitch and IDM.

Originally released in 2003 as Microvast under Dwyer’s former alias X:F System, the material has been reworked with the expanded ideas Dwyer developed as Off Land. Regardless of label, Dwyer leans on the idea of the album as concept, resulting in little variance over the thirteen tracks on Microcosm. There’s little in the way of percussion here, the odd bass drumbeat and reduced glitch pattern aside, as Dwyer uses cinematic keyboards that ease along simple chord patterns in an unobtrusive manner. This is the kind of album that you can have drifting along in the background, looping to maintain a consistently calming type of atmosphere, and there’s enough variety to keep it from growing too stale. Vocal drops, distinguishable and otherwise, break up the analog synths and reliance on wobbly reverb in measured places; “Wander” is a good example of how Dwyer keeps things moving without threatening his established mood.

If Microcosm had shifted its content to a wider and bolder palette, it would have transformed into something very close to classic space-faring dark ambient. Here’s where Off Land explores its ever-smaller concept: the music is kept close and warm, on the wondrous side of exploration. The soaring pads of “Orchard” are mixed with a vibrating series of sequences, drawing you down and down, past the leaves and roots, into the endless field of molecules that make up the landscape. The follower, “Concrete,” is darker and colder, befitting the title substance’s artificial nature.

Off Land takes its implosion deeper as the album closes. The final four tracks are the longest on Microcosm , and the extended structure allows Dwyer to develop his concept in a longer format. “Others,” for example, is a slow haunting drift through atomic haze, the pads keeping their distance but still fleshing out the wide-eyed sense of the album. “Solar” is more structured; like the opener “Charon,” it’s given form through skeletal clicks and cuts and looped piano, with the ever-present electronic wobble further connecting it to the rest of the cosmos we’ve been journeying through. This is not a track intended to portray the glory of the sun, at least, not as a celestial body; rather, I get the sense it’s aimed at examining photosynthesis through a microscope. The album comes to a fitting close with “Dual,” an eleven-minute bed of comfortable synths and gentle vibrations.

Listened to actively, Microcosm does wear a bit thin. Many of its tracks are so similar in form and mood, there can be little distinction, especially with so much content. I must admit, too, that the ever-present vibrations do tend to grate on my ears over time; the last thing you want in from music intended to immerse. I don’t think this was Off Land’s plan, however. Microcosm is a catalyst for aided relaxation, a companion for an imagined trip far down the fractal spiral. Approached from this design standpoint, it’s easy to see just how well Off Land has nailed the concept.

Die Minimalistin – Surrealer Raum

Time Theory records (tmth020), 2008

Tanja Dovens’ netlabel project Die Minimalistin has become a favorite of mine recently. Her unique brand of stripped-down ambient carries a hypnotic sense of place within its delicate and haunting atmospheres. Surrealer Raum sees Dovens taking a step deeper into the experimentalism hinted at on EPs such as Lichttod and Isolator, shifting the tone of the experience without losing much of the minimal style that gives the project its trademark sound.

Like the rest of her netlabel releases, Surrealer Raum is an EP, containing only four tracks. For the first time, Dovens increases her experimentation with rhythmic elements (perhaps influenced by her colleague Hanna Adam, who records glitchy downtempo as adamned.age). The title track, for example, has a fully developed (but sparse, of course!) percussive element that changes the feel; this is no longer the pure dark ambient of Die Minimalistin’s prior work. “Himmel Unter Berlin” features glitchy pops and clicks, and “Wirklichkeitsinkektionen” contains more looped samples of noise than the project has typically used. It’s interesting to hear Dovens experiment with these elements, and it nudges her sound into a hybrid territory that doesn’t work quite as well on a purely immersive level, but her talent at arrangement is still quite apparent.

The jewel of Surrealer Raum is the final track, “Geist Hauch,” which is as chilling and vast a piece of work as Die Minimalistin has produced since the unnerving whispers and pulsing drone of the track “Schattengrab.” Dovens is inspired by abandoned buildings and urban ruins, and when listening to the spacious bleak drone and stirring bits of noise winding through the track like the coldest of winds, it’s easy to imagine oneself roaming in darkness, surrounded by crumbling walls and the lost spirits unable to detach themselves from the somber sense of decay. Rhythmic noise is still apparent, like bursts of approaching static, but the claustrophobia of the looming drone is the central focus.

It will be fascinating to see where Die Minimalistin goes from here. Surrealer Raum, which translates as “surreal room,” cannot be termed strictly as dark ambient, for the additional rhythmic content has moved the project into new realms. When Dovens’ output is considered as a whole, her sound has been gradually moving away from the specter-filled halls of Lichttod to a newer and altogether stranger place. One can only imagine where this journey may lead.

Bluedark – Explorations Far Below

Mirakelmusik (mir010), 2005

A four-chapter dark ambient novella, Explorations Far Below is a brief yet tantalizing creation penned by Bluedark. Clocking in at just under thirty minutes, Erik Glans’ debut EP shows a firm grasp of the mechanics of dark ambient while providing a quality listening experience.

Bluedark may be new at the genre, but has studied it well. Explorations Far Below doesn’t surprise or innovate, using genre staples such as dreary chords, reverse bells and chimes, and whispered speech samples to generate an atmosphere of shadow-haunted mystery. Neither does the concept break new ground; subterranean thrills have been a popular genre since Lustmord first took his equipment deep into the caves of Heresy. With track titles such as “The Old Ship Under the Ground” and “Hidden Words,” Bluedark follows this well-trodden path with an assured hand, easily conveying the feel of empty caverns, claustrophobic corridors, and constant anxiety of discovery that’s marked so many similar releases.

Why, then, is Explorations Far Below worth one’s time? Glans is able to capture the aesthetics of the genre as well as the technical aspect, which not all releases – especially debuts – are able to achieve. Even more impressive is how he is able to do this despite a noticeable sparsity of content; his placement of his limited array of samples is natural without sounding too thin. There came a point for me, halfway though the first track, “Fragments of Things Beyond the Waking World,” where I realized I was no longer actively seeking missteps or breaks in the flow. Bluedark had me fully in its grasp, and I was borne along through its passageways and chambers, fully absorbed in the familiar yet alien world it had conjured. The odd creaks and distant whistles of the strangely named “Tree Propeller” only increased my enticement – what exactly is a tree propeller, anyway? “Hidden Words” is true to its name, with snippets of unintelligible sampled speech thrusting into the web of drones, loops, and weird distant popping sounds. Admittedly, genre veterans won’t find anything here they haven’t heard before, but with such a clear and impressive understanding of the potential of ambient sound, Bluedark is certainly a project to keep on one’s radar.

While I can’t say that Explorations Far Below will replace The Nacrasti or Dismal Radiance in my personal dark ambient list of favorites, it occupied a prime playing slot for far longer than I initially expected. Many were the occasions that I immediately began it anew upon reaching its always premature ending; even after multiple listens, I always wanted more. Without question, Bluedark is a project to pay attention to.