Donovan Hikaru & 猫 シ Corp. – CRS 3.0

Midnight Moon Tapes, 2017

If Consumer Recreation Services rings a bell in your pop-culture mind, there’s a reason. CRS is the shadowy group that pushes Michael Douglas to the edge in David Fincher’s surreal 1997 film The Game. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Donovan Hikaru, that quirky reclusive master of the global financial market, has used CRS as the inspiration for three albums.

Hikaru’s two previous CRS releases, 1.0 and 2.0, the second of which was released with a cassette hidden somewhere in San Francisco, containing exclusive tracks for the fan savvy enough to track it down. That’s certainly something Fincher’s company would approve of. The first two albums featured a different direction for Donovan Hikaru, with waves of pensive ambiance replacing the bouncy pop-inspired exuberance of DH albums such as Business Travel Bonanza!.

For CRS 3.0, the structure has seen some changes, the obvious one being that the album is now a split release with 猫 シ Corp., the versatile ambient artist responsible for the mallsoft classic Palm Mall as well as synthwave and broken transmission released under a variety of monikers. Hikaru’s tracks are up first, chock full of an eclectic mix of sax-based lounge and synthwave. The feel is, again, different from his business-based work, but there’s a definite procession from the recent mallsoft EP Kiosk Vibes. His eight tracks display an impressive amount of variety – this is arguably the most experimental DH records to date – and the final track, “They Own the Whole Building…”, veers close to the shadowed corners of dark ambient, making one wonder what Donovan could do in the genre if he devoted more of his impressive international resources in such a direction.

猫 シ Corp. has always shown such versatility, and his contributions are no different. His half of CRS 3.0 is slightly heavier and more ambient, but still has the 80s-synth-and-sax styling of side projects such as the Izusu Piazza-idolizing いすゞ・ピアッツァ ENTERPRISES. Owing to the intensity and urban-noir plot of The Game, the tone skews toward the buried tension that wracks Nicholas Van Orton. “Empty Floor” is particularly noteworthy, with its sparse percussion and mysterious chimes, and “Like My Father Before Me” is dominated by an ominous looped bass synth. It’s heavy stuff, but considering the subject matter of Fincher’s film, it makes a good deal of sense. “Left for Dead” is even more desolate, treading dark ambient waters in a surprising turn; Mexican samples echo in the background, reflecting Van Orton’s confusion upon finding himself transported south of the border. Once the bounce of “Golf Clubs” and the piano-lounge of “Happy Birthday, Nicky” kick in, however, the mood has shifted yet again, back to L.A. chic.

Split releases often run the risk of sounding, well, uneven, and CRS 3.0 is somewhat guilty of this, especially when compared to the consistent conceptual execution of the previous two albums in the series. However, like the film that inspired it, the album runs an impressive gauntlet of emotion, reflected in the deftly conceived and executed range of styles. What CRS 3.0 might lack in consistency, it more than makes up for with hefty doses of creativity and experimentation.

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Donovan Hikaru – Kiosk Vibes

bandcamp, 2016

Donovan Hikaru, arguably the most ambitious executive of the corporate-wave genre, has set his sights on a new prize: the shopping mall. At first, this might seem like an odd choice, until one remembers the lucrative possibilities of the retail industry; ah yes, the profit-minded Donovan will fit right in. Conceptual pondering aside, what makes David Jackman’s music so gratifying is how easily and creatively it fits into its target concept: a soundtrack to his alter ego’s global business ventures. Mallsoft functions in much the same way, aiming to provide an ambient backdrop to the shopping experience. Whether focused on field recordings taken from real-life malls or on the “muzak” that often drifts through those cavernous monuments to commerce (or both), mallsoft is a curious, intentionally non-intrusive style of ambient.

While Kiosk Vibes, the first mallsoft foray from Donovan Hikaru, follows some of the sub-genre’s established rules, it’s first and foremost a DH record. The five tracks (with a sixth available on a very limited CD-R, along with a background story showing that the music is indeed a soundtrack) have an intentionally muffled sound, making the music sound like it’s being heard from a distance. This technique is a defining characteristic of the mallsoft style – it’s background music after all – and it’s a highly effective one, creating an accurate audio illusion of vast grand spaces.

Like usual, however, there’s more to Donovan Hikaru than meets the ear. Beneath the expected muted layering of Kiosk Vibes courses the same unexpected and exuberant lifeblood of past DH albums, manifested as melodic energy and groovy hooks. There’s also not a single drop of the marketing cynicism or mindless consumerism that defines many mallsoft records; Kiosk Vibes is about exploring the wonders of one’s surroundings rather than making an economical statement.

As with most Donovan Hikaru releases, there’s practically zero sampled ambiance. The music is the focus, rather than a collage of assembled samples. The buried sound palette might catch DH fans off-guard at first, but the effect is smoothly implemented, and one’s ears quickly adjust. Beneath the thick hazy synths, the romantic vibe of “Nighttime Promenade” and the wavering “Concierge” include the classy saxophone melodies that have always a vital part of Donovan’s musical DNA.

The middle three tracks, however, are pure synth, and show Kiosk Vibes at its most experimental. “Mint Chocolate Chip” features the same kind of irresistible keyboard hook that Donovan has always specialized in; the jangling off-key stab that bursts forth as the track winds down is exactly the kind of left-of-center detail that sets Jackman’s work apart from his peers. It also enhances the track’s carnival-like feel; anyone who’s been to an ice-cream parlor will undoubtedly take note of the perfect nostalgia of this track. The heavily reverbed drums, floating melody, and light synth taps of “Macys Run” are delightfully retro, while remaining perfectly suited to the mallsoft vibe. “Lost in the Galleria” portrays the joy of losing one’s way in a brightly lit commercial paradise. Rather than a panicked or stressful feel, the beatless wandering keys are drenched in comforting whimsy; this Galleria is a safe haven for the aimless. While there aren’t many tracks in the Donovan discography that are free from beats, they’re all superb, and “Lost in the Galleria” is no exception.

Kiosk Vibes is a departure for Donovan Hikaru, but it’s a skillfully subtle one. There’s no celebratory buffet or San Tablos sunset here, but the music – and equally important, the conceptual aesthetic – retains the same playfully experimental vibe that has defined Donovan Hikaru since his first appearance. Jackman is a talented musical sandboxer, happily toying with genre convention while indulging his catchy songwriting verve, and this release shows there’s more to DH than the corporate boardroom and huge expense accounts. If Donovan Hikaru is indeed turning his attention to new financial vistas to conquer, Kiosk Vibes is strong evidence that his off-kilter quirk will remain as engaging as ever.

Albert Zaigrov – Vacuum

R.K.B. Studio 13 (RKB-041), 2016

It’s always a tricky thing when an artist reminds you of another. Such is the case with Albert Zaigrov’s five-track EP Vacuum, which combines traditional beat-driven synth with pensive dark ambient to impressive effect, much in the way Forma Tadre once did with the classic album Navigator. Zaigrov doesn’t simply copy Andreas Meyer, but the versatile composition feels very similar.

Vacuum also features a supporting story of sorts: an unnamed man awakens in a surreal dreamspace, and wanders about searching for answers and an escape. The music can be interpreted as a soundtrack to this journey, but the music is so well-done, the concept adds to the experience rather than relying on it. There are two brief free-form atmospheric pieces, “Dark Corners” and “Garden,” which impart a narrative sense while establishing mood. In a display of Zaigrov’s creative talent, “Dark Corners” centers on a spaced looped tone while layered drone defines “Garden.” Neither track is very long, but they don’t need to be; while they are nicely placed intervals for the EP overall, they aren’t merely filler.

The remaining three tracks show Zaigrov at his most focused. Melodic piano is echoed by retro synthesizers, while minimal percussion and beats flesh out the framework. “Vacuum” and “Utopia” are similar in mood, but both tracks are very well put together; Zaigrov clearly understands how to assemble a satisfying synth track. The high-pitched piano is slightly nervous, and the backing drones a bit ominous, but the ambiance never becomes too oppressive. The momentum provided by the beats is perfectly paced, neither too slow nor too frantic, and the rhythms all play off each other in impressive fashion.

Vacuum culminates with “Narcotic Drain,” which combines the atmospherics and the percussion to great effect. The beat is slowed and distanced, while the loops and keys provide the same gray surrealism that dominates the EP. Like Meyer, Zaigrov’s songwriting is matched by his sense of the aesthetic; while there is a variety of style at work on Vacuum, the feel remains the same, never wavering from its half-lit fog-wreathed atmosphere.

Without question, Vacuum is a remarkable listen. Zaigrov has produced highly listenable music that also swirls with strange mystery. As good as the EP is, there’s clearly a good deal of untapped potential, and not just because Vacuum is only twenty minutes in length. One gets the feeling that Zaigrov has just begun to hone his craft, and it would be no surprise if subsequent releases make good on the EP’s promise. On its own, though, Vacuum is a wonderful throwback to the thrilling early days of electro, when creativity and solid production reigned over studio trickery.

Perturbator – The Uncanny Valley

Blood Music (BLOOD 160), 2016

Ah, the 21st century, where everything old is new again. I never thought I’d see a cassette revival – vinyl I get, but cassette? – but here it is. While the merits (or lack thereof) of that archival format is a topic that can be debated elsewhere, there’s been an explosive resurgence of retro-styled electronic music in the last decade or so. Owing partly to the ease of emulation (though many retro artists insist on using original equipment) and partly to the creative rearrangement and recombination that many of these albums are built upon, it’s been quite an interesting phenomenon to watch unfold.

James Kent’s alter ego Perturbator is one of the more noteworthy retro projects, combining the sound of 1980s analog synthesizers with the keen edge of modern production, and the finer art of enhancement through modern styles. The Uncanny Valley is Perturbator’s fourth release, courtesy of Finnish label Blood Music, and it’s arrived in multiple formats, including digital, CD, a few magnificently designed vinyl limited editions, and yes, cassette. The 1980s were a showy and decadent decade, and it’s fitting that The Uncanny Valley has been given a corresponding treatment, especially since the album’s artwork is already draped in succulent neon hues and boldly slashed writing – not to mention the blantantly R-rated image gracing the cover.

Perturbator’s music matches the presentation. It’s brash and energetic, the love-child of Tangerine Dream and modern hard techno, with DNA contributions from 80s synthpop and Vangelis. The opener, “Neo Tokyo,” announces The Uncanny Valley with turbo-charged synthwork and glitched-out percussion. It’s an exhilarating fusion of classic tinny-sounding analog keys and manic electro percussive rhythms. As opening credits go, this one’s a stunner.

Kent is a clever alchemist, however. While it’s clear he could have stayed very comfortably within this glowing zone where Wicked City meets Tron (the original, of course), he’s got more tales to tell. “Weapons for Children” slows the tempo and kicks up the drama, its fuel-injected synths intertwining organically, tempos breaking and resuming in thrill-ride intervals. “Death Squad” is a few degrees heavier, both in structure and atmosphere, with a perfectly placed sequence adding an edge of anxiety befitting the track’s title. There’s an undercurrent of the cinematic, as if The Uncanny Valley was the soundtrack to an 80s tribute film; “Femme Fatale” is thick with backlit urban smoke and sensual intrigue, and is clearly influenced by Vangelis’ classic score for the influential film Blade Runner. “Venger,” a neo-future pop anthem featuring the sultry vocals of Greta Link, is irresistibly catchy and full of interlocking synth hooks; if The Uncanny Valley was a soundtrack, this would be the chart-climbing hit single.

From here, The Uncanny Valley does little to slow its delirious momentum. Inertia-laden tracks such as “Disco Inferno” and “Diabolus Ex Machina” provide a hint to the sexy succubus of the album’s cover, and the unspoken plot reaches a climax on “Assault” and “The Cult of 2112.” It becomes clearer that The Uncanny Valley – named for the strangely detached inhuman appearance of computer-generated human faces, representing things that are not as they appear – is a conceptual work, but the true nature of its meaning is left for us to contemplate. “Souls at Zero” and the closing title track (as in closing credits, of course) are the culmination of the events, the hymn of the wreckage left by the conflict, and the glimmer of hope among those who survived.

Perturbator is not satisfied with mimicry. While Kent does have a special fondness for the era that has influenced his sound, his work isn’t just about nostalgia. The Uncanny Valley is a tribute to the curious edge of the 1980s, when experimentation and pretension began to join hands, but the album is more than this. It’s a period piece drowned in modernity, crowned with heavy doses of creativity and panache. Kent casts a knowing eye on his influences, analyzing them then molding them anew; embracing the original spark and coaxing it to burn with fierce new light. Perturbator is riding the crest of 21st-century synthwave, and The Uncanny Valley is proof that Kent has cemented his place.