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.

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.

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.

Broken Light – Silhouette

The Vapour Library (TVL-018), 2016

Assembled from an assortment of seemingly disparate pieces, Silhouette from Broken Light is well-named. This is an indistinct, apparently incomplete record; a solution to an undefined puzzle. It’s one thing to make a conceptual record, but quite another to toss a bunch of snippets into a digital blender, with a result that doesn’t simply leave a question unanswered – Broken Light doesn’t bother with asking a question in the first place.

But here lies the mystique: somehow, it all fits. The hazy-shadow figure on the cover of Silhouette is the only initial clue we’re given: a person wearing what appears to be a long collared coat, standing quietly against a white background. The track titles provide further elusive hints, if they are hints at all. Broken Light has cleverly pieced together snippets of baroque string and classical piano, skewed melodic samples of unknown provenance, and a scattering of Asian-sourced fragments, sent through various delicate filters and manipulated by speed and timbre. There are twenty-two pieces here, few lasting longer than ninety seconds or so, but the atmosphere, somehow, remains consistent.

The manner with which Broken Light has arranged the sequence creates and maintains a sort of shadowed beauty, echoing the cover image. The piano of “Enclosure” is, I’m quite certain, pilfered from one of Chopin’s nocturnes, and a few others sound achingly familiar, but I can’t quite place them. Perhaps this contributes to the sense of mystery and loss. Then you have the sing-song beauty of “Angel”, with a pitched-up Asian vocal surely lifted from some obscure film or album, but reduced to an alien loop backed by pipe, strings, and trickling water, all combining to match the emotion twisting off the somber violin and winsome piano in curling tendrils. If there is a story here – and this certainly seems to be the case – it is a profoundly strange and buried one. On the other hand, part of the attraction of this type of minimally presented album is the welcome opportunity to create your own, should you prefer.

Since unlocking and absorbing this odd and beautifully curated music box, wisps of melody have begun to drift through my head at random intervals. At first, I thought it was my subconscious diving into the depths of memory and surfacing with some half-remembered tiny musical jewel. It remained for a while, as I fumble, amused, for a name or connection, only to have it sink back into the mysterious place from whence it came. It was only later that I realized it was a floating piece of Silhouette, turned up my ever-moving mental tide, which seems to operate by its own rules more often than not. Perhaps Broken Light’s intent was to create a tribute to the inexact elegance of memory; mission accomplished.

I’m not sure if Broken Light is a genius at sound selection and manipulation, or just happened to fit these fragments together in a pattern that is more than the sum of its parts. Likely a droplet of both. Not everyone will react to Silhouette in the same way I have, but I’d wager that there are surely others who will find themselves caught up in its hypnotic web, and be glad for it.

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.

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.