4 Great Records from 2016

Here is my greatly belated list of 2016 records. In no particular order, these are a few musical highlights from an otherwise bleak year.

  1. Babyfather – BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow Hip-hop, harsh noise, and an overarching sense of unease compose the first full-length release from Dean Blunt’s new collective Babyfather. It’s a perfect compliment to 2016. Check it out for apocolypse vibes.
  2. Amnesia Scanner – ASAfter a series of scattershot, but truly innovative mixtapes, the Berlin-based duo Amnesia Scanner released their first proper EP. It takes the aesthetics of trap, electronica, and dubstep, puts them through a meat grinder, and rebuilds them into an unrecognizable Frankenstein’s monster of cultural detritus. Essential listening.
  3. Dedekind Cut – $uccessor (ded 004) Operating between the realms of ambient and progresive sound, Dedekind Cut’s LP gets the best of both. Using smooth pads, synthetic strings, and digital choirs, this record fuses a number of popular electronic tropes and integrates them into a more calm context, while still maintaining a mysterious and sometimes disorienting air.
  4. James Ferraro – Human Story 3A definite personal highlight of the year, Human Story 3 saw James Ferraro taking a sharp turn from the cryptic, heavily referential patterns of his previous albums. Instead, he has created eleven meticulously crafted modern classical compositions, calling to mind everyone from Steve Reich to Stravinsky. The mix of genuine optimism and the more covert uncanniness of its depiction of a techno-utopia make for a unique, pensive listening experience. Disclaimer: there are many robot voices.
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The Visceral Humanity of Entrañas

Arca – Entrañas

Arca’s new mixtape, a precursor to his upcoming self-titled album on Warp Records, challenges the conventional norms of electronic production and emerges as his most visceral work to date.

The music of Venezuelan-born artist Arca occupies a peculiar space in electronic production, a space that is as conceptually bewildering as it is emotionally evocative. As such, its peculiarity might be best understood by briefly highlighting some norms and practices established for the production of electronic music.

As early as 1970, the lion’s share of popular electronic pioneers, from Kraftwerk to Alexander Robotnik, made explicit the artificiality of their synthesized compositions in both structure and content. Not only did their music make ample references to robots and automation, but it also mirrored the procedural qualities of machine operation in its cyclical, repetitive structure and rigid conformity. Rarely can one find a swung rhythm or improvisational tangent in early popular electronic music. There are, of course, notable exceptions to a strictly formal adherence to the mechanical, such as the minimal synthesizer music of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, but even these improvised pieces bear a significant resemblance to the aforementioned traits, specifically in their use of repetition. The same compromised distinctions apply to most electronic-heavy krautrock as well. It is clear even (if not especially) now that mechanicality in electronic music has been historically laid as the foundation for experimentation and advancement in the field, with popular EDM exhibiting almost identical structural components to those of early popular artists, albeit tempered with extended crescendos and extreme dynamic contrast.

The works of electronic duo Autechre, specifically during the mid-nineties with their seminal album Tri repetae, attempt to build on these conventions through technical complexity and tonal specificity that resemble some aspects on the academic end of electronic sound production. The result of Autechre’s mid-nineties experimentation is an accelerated iteration of the emotional distance evoked by Kraftwerk’s engagement with the robotic. The percussion hits in varied succession, each oscillating wave more cold and calculating than the last. Melodies become alien in their sheer acoustic impossibility. As an approach to complexity, emotional distance appears initially as self-assuring. Of course increasing the precision of an electronic composition would only strengthen those robotic traits that prevent the listener from relating to the music in any tangible way. However, it is this assumption that fails to account for the emotionally dense, wholly human experience of listening to Arca’s work.

Like Autechre, Arca is extremely proficient in constructing meticulous digital soundscapes, yet where they differ is in the application of technical specificity. Unlike Autechre, Arca eschews the conventional preconception that precision necessarily entails rigidity. His arrangements are fractured and disparate, cutting in synthetic tones and melodies at unconventional intervals which constantly morph and mutate into something that, on the cusp of approaching some semblance of a stable progression, is sent soaring in an entirely new direction.

This method is exemplified most prominently in his self-released mixtape Entrañas, an eclectic collection of sampled material, original composition, and vocal performance. The piece begins with soft, breathy synthesizers weaving in and out of the stark atmosphere, panning indeterminately between the left and right channels. Even here the placement of each synthetic tone is stilted, suggesting a form constantly undercut by unconventional temporal markers. A great swell overtakes the breathy synths, transitioning to a bewildering arrangement of downpitched baby whines, dark ambient noise, a kick and an ever-ascending siren. Eventually, as the siren and whines reach peak urgency, this soundscape gives way to an industrial gun-shot beat, itself undulating amorphously along the frequency range. Occasional samples interrupt for mere milliseconds before being engulfed and reintegrated into the relentless sonic chaos. The environment softens for a moment, then reaches cacophony, at which point the listener is greeted with a jerking, unevenly swung beat that somehow still remains, in strictly technical parlance, heavy as fuck, complete with whip samples and a stilted lead.

What is most remarkable about this mixtape is the degree to which its pieces mutate and seamlessly blend into one another, consistently shifting in dynamics, frequency, and any other modulating metric Arca has mastered. The inability to cling to the familiar comfort of musical linearity in Entrañas is what, perhaps unexpectedly, makes it such an emotionally immersive work. Unshackled from the conventional trappings of cyclical, mechanical structuring, a moment of sound is never identically reproduced on the record. Each minute sound is a unique, fleeting phenomenon similar to those of organic processes, where each footstep on the leafy ground produces its own irreproducible crunch, existing only in that very moment. It is with that same impermanence that Entrañas excels in evoking such powerful emotional resonance through its warped landscapes. The melancholic swell of a synth pad is heightened to a mournful dirge when paired with Arca’s stunning vocals, particularly on the final track Sin Rumbo. Heretofore untrodden ground for Arca’s mixtapes, his addition of clear, melodic singing adds further grounding to the organic atmosphere he’s crafted.

Samples from Total Freedom, Cocteau Twins, and even works of film are peppered throughout, offering a sound as diverse in sourcing as it is in content. At around 5 minutes and 30 seconds, a voice proclaims reservedly: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shorts and boots, because it’s okay to be a boy, but for a girl to look like a boy is degrading, because you think being a girl is degrading.” Taken from the film Cement Garden, (and subsequently repurposed by Madonna) the quote takes on a new urgency surrounded by the eerie, dissonant feedback that Arca provides. Stripped of its origin and recontextualized, the quote is weaponized. Eventually the feedback is joined by heavily distorted percussion and a sample from Beatrix by Cocteau Twins, evocatively juxtaposing in the understatedness of the quotation and the unrelenting power of the atmosphere. Embedded in this juxtaposition lies the implication that, inherent in a tacit acceptance of unjust social conventions is an active, oppressive violence that cannot be delegated to passivity.

With the great diversity of style and form present on Entrañas, it is hard to imagine tiring of its mutations. Elements of industrial stand alongside those of hip-hop and electronica, but to ascribe genre specificity to this sprawling epic would be to do it a great disservice. The organizing principle is its disorganization, the form its formlessness. It is made real by simulating the very chaos so central to corporeal reality, the very intangible amorphousness that composes our innards.

James Ferraro: The New Age Tapes Years

With hundreds of hours of recorded music under about 50 different names, James Ferraro can be hard to pin down.

With a catalog as prolific as James Ferraro’s, spanning dozens of musical works spread across a number of aliases, it’s hard to imagine it being cohesive. In some respects, it isn’t. From the glistening drones of the cult-inspired Heaven’s Gate to the snot-nosed freak-pop of Night Dolls with Hairspray, ascribing a thematic core to Ferraro’s music might seem counter-intuitive, yet throughout his expansive discography there remain central constructive similarities that denote the artist’s unmistakable brand. Coincidentally, “brand” may be a useful word to begin considering these similarities. However disparate his genre sourcing, Ferraro’s work is consistent in its warped use of commercial musical tropes that offers an absurdist reflection of modern life. This week, I will be concentrating on his earlier, lofi releases on his New Age Tapes record label that highlight Ferraro’s penchant for repurposing commercial pop culture.

  1. Clear

A 40 minute sprawl of analog (sounding?) synthesizers, the sonic landscape found on Clear is about as blissful as one can find in Ferraro’s catalog. The unending waves of hypnotic melody ebb and flow, muffled under the warm tape hiss of a tape recorder. Though clearly influenced by New Age music, the piece works to transcend such a crude genre classification by using an indeterminate progression typically reserved for ambient or noise music. By eschewing the structural norms of New Age music, Clear pervert’s the genre’s conceits, drawing attention to the particularities of each sound and laying bare the true alien nature of previously familiar aesthetics. This effect is amplified over time in the piece as its layering intensifies, each instrument losing its integrity under the lofi crackle that threatens to engulf the soundscape. Guitars, drums, and choirs eventually weave through the disorienting composition, yet rather than comforting the listener, the instruments only heighten the uncanny environment by repeating measures vaguely resembling commercial jingles. Clear refers to the state of nirvana in Scientology, a fitting title for a piece that evokes transcendence through artifice.

  1. Edward Flex Presents: Do You Believe in Hawaii?

Roid-raged grunts, seagull calls, and the familiar New Age synths found on Clear are all given equal representation in Do You Believe in Hawaii?, a jacked-up 80s fever dream of equal parts testosterone and flamboyance. Commercial guitar riffs and pitch-shifted beefcakes chug and grunt respectively, populating the sound-world with plasticity and artifice. Recorded on tape, the analog hum of this piece, in conjunction with its various references to 80s pop tropes, suggests an appeal to nostalgia, but not in any familiar way. The aesthetics in Do You Believe in Hawaii? heighten the past not by idealization, but by mutation. Under Ferraro’s lens, bodybuilders become grotesque monsters, the essential product of modern consumer culture’s obsession with the achievement of a transhuman ideal. By connecting the image of the bodybuilder with the low-art, consumerist excess of the 80s, Ferraro highlights consumer culture’s pervasive effect on bodies, portraying masculine “perfection” as a deformity rather than an aspiration.