講評 : valyri – Surreality / Saturnfall

The great thing about the vapour scene is there are no shortage of talented, creative, driven, passionate or imaginative artists. As I said in a recent interview, I see it as a place where maximum creative freedom is achieved. And it’s easy to see the results just by looking at Bandcamp releases with the vaporwave tag or on YouTube with channels like Vapor Memory.

While there are many artists that I have come to like through my own walk through the vapour, there are a few who really stand out as the beacons of the scene. They are the artists who have all of those traits I had listed earlier and thus continuously make the scene interesting by adding to new possibilities and thus expanding its universe. These are the artists I think of when I think of vapour. One of these artists is valyri.

Valyri Bosserman has achieved over four years or so a level of the prolific rivaled by only a handful of artists in the scene. Her tireless efforts to explore sonic possibilities has a resulted in a large body of work, often using an assortment of monikers. The one used the most in the earlier days was khoven, which has since retired in a nice denouement back in 2017 with Tapedeath. Using mostly her own name now, she continues exploring various sonic possibilities such as making plunderphonics glitchy and more self-aware (Save As…) or utilizing more of her voice to create atmosphere (Time to Forget) or bringing together more of what she has done but push it forward with ever subtle refinements (Etherealism).

By the way, the easiest way to explore her sonic universe is by obtaining a subscription directly from her Bandcamp page. Trust me when I say that everything said here is just the tip of the iceberg.

Allow me, if you will, a point of entry into the valyri universe. It is actually two distinct albums but can be seen as one: Surreality and Saturnfall. This complicated yet lovely interaction is due to how it was issued on cassette through New Motion in 2018. The music itself was recorded over the span of three years. In fact, Surreality was originally four hours long and was going to be released as khoven. But circumstances and time has trimmed it down to a two-hour span with some of the material spinning off into other forms. In a way, I cannot help but compare this to The Waste Land, especially when comparing its thought-to-be-lost draft/manuscript to the final poem. However, as this was also a deep thank you and touching tribute to another mammoth musical undertaking, she added the two-hour album Saturnfall to make the cassette issue last near exactly four hours.

If James Webster was exploring the levels of a large mega-tower (basically, imagine any classic home video game but fusing it with say this or this, if you like things visual), valyri is exploring a universe that may either be real or beyond the real. The entire album flows like a dream where it can go from ambient to something percussive to something melodic to a combination of both and back to atmospheric. Every now and then, you hear the waves lapping upon the shoreline, as if you are always returning to a port of entry after leaving one world before embarking on the next. The timbres are quite broad, venturing from familiar (the Yamaha DX7 electric piano and something like the CS80 brass appears) to seemingly new. And every now and then, you pick up something that sounds familiar. For instance, “空っぽmind” is one of several nods to the Berlin School – Klaus Schulze in particular – found in the album (and even in the next one). “喜びを失ったguilt” reminds me a lot of Aphex Twin’s “hexagon” (20th track from Selected Ambient Works Vol. II using the vinyl sequencing … by the way, you can get it the full thing here).

If there is anything she has learned well from the Ghost Diamond collective, it’s how to bring a strong sense of feeling into the music. For the first two sides, the general mood can be described as of awe-struck amazement, though with an ebb and flow that ventures into more specific moods. But on the third cassette side (starting from “私は海の近くにいたいinability”), the trajectory subtly turns dark. It’s as if the lucid dream, after exhausting all positive ideas, goes more into the darker material and thus creating an overcast eclipse to its darkest point at the very end with “永遠の街の霧hoped for”. The child is grown and the dream is gone indeed.

Album released on 29 July 2018 via New Motion

If the end of Surreality can be heard as the end of a dream, Saturnfall begins with a sharp awakening. On the whole, Saturnfall shares Surreality‘s propensity for music extending through a long stretch of time. But whereas Surreality freely explored many different worlds in an ever-changing design, Saturnfall‘s sound depends on a few carefully chosen elements that remains consistent during its respective length of time. And speaking of time lengths, they are evenly measured as if to create nested divisions, akin to what you can derive from the Golden Ratio. Finally, while dds heavily inspired Surreality, Saturnfall takes its cue from Hecq’s brilliant “score without a film” Night Falls.

Saturnfall tells a story but not as a dream, but as a subconscious, mildly tragic, psychological narrative. The first act establishes a desire to leave a world for another in order to end what seems to be an unending and unbearable pain and anguish. “Descend through the atmosphere” consists of primarily lush strings that could make Mahler or Bruckner weep or that wouldn’t sound out of place with Hans Zimmer’s music for anything made by Christopher Nolan (I’ll come back to him later). “Dark clouds, visible only from lightning” is the inverted negative of Brian Eno’s “2/2” from Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Instead of what could be a loving homecoming, it’s a frustrated arrival where the dread lingers that tomorrow will not get any better. “Everything falling” takes on a kind of autumnal post-rock vibe with clean guitar chords that gently weep through a thick reverberation.

The second act is the album’s longest track and what I think is the album’s centrepiece. “This is the end; isn’t it” is the entire forty minute cassette side (D if you have it) spent on a stretched and heavily processed recording where you can feel Saturn’s mighty gravitational pull bringing you into full oblivion. Basically, the only force strong enough to stop the pain of living is found by taking the same path this probe took. This is the end. Or is it?

The third act suggests that maybe death is not melting into the emptiness. Perhaps, like venturing into the outer reaches of space a la 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar (told you, Nolan would come back later), death could be a gateway into another dimension. “No fear, no pain. Just the semblance of feelings” – the shortest piece on the album – has a resonant ambiance to where a slow arpeggio builds and an additional deep bell/synth melody makes itself known. “Giving in to the immense nothing” is another exercise in the Berlin School aesthetic with a cyclic arpeggio that morphs due to various filter modifications. This and the previous track could be heard as crossing into another dimension. Maybe it is the pain that dies. The Tangerine Dream vibe continues into “Only a void of blissful absent conscious” to where the transformation finally settles down and one is able to move about freely again. (By the way, I cannot help but think of Leyland Kirby when seeing these titles, who also has a penchant for the densely melancholic). We finally conclude at “The eventual core at which all becomes motionless” where the sea from Surreality returns: perhaps as a distant memory or perhaps a return to a new beginning. A slow pad melody builds and develops through the last fifteen minutes, outlining what should be the end of one life and the beginning of another (hopefully sans pain). And in an nice parallel to Surreality, which started light but then used its last third gradually descending, Saturnfall ends its last third gradually ascending after starting on the low. Together, they could illustrate a reincarnation cycle of sorts where prolonged innocence eventually gives way to prolonged experience and, after reaching despair’s depths, one ascends again to enlightenment and innocence … and the cycle begins again.

Album released on 29 July 2018 via New Motion

With its cosmic yet personal concept, its grand-sweeping sound and its command of style, Surreality and Saturnfall is the best illustration of a single artist who is constantly exploring new worlds and reinventing herself at every possible chance. Likewise, it is artists like her who continuously give new vibrant life to a scene long thought dead before its arrival. Who knew that a universe could be only an iceberg’s tip?

講評 : INTERNET CLUB – REDEFINING THE WORKPLACE

It has been a while since I have done one of these reviews. Plus, I think it is best to go OG-VW every now and then. And you cannot get any more old school than INTERNET CLUB, the most well-known moniker of Robin (was Will) Burnett. And here, we are REDEFINING THE WORKPLACE.

As of writing this, I have only listened to about half of the IC discography. I know there are an assortment of one offs like Datavision Ltd., memorex dawn, and of course, the pinnacle of baffling experimentation. And I believe the themes and ideas addressed here are found in the other IC albums as well. But this seems to be one most talked about and praised when mentioning IC and it does seem to be the apex of that particular sound and affect.

The album itself is a 75 minute journey into what sounds like the soundtrack to a corporate environment. I would not be surprised if the sound sources stem from various corporate media: your training videos, your stock background music for the lobbies, and, yes, the music you are most likely to hear when placed on hold. But in true plunderphonics fashion with a vapour twist, these typical sounds sound quite atypical. Whether it’s employing frequency filters, glitchy loop editing or quick panning to make even the most adventurous seafarer woozy, this is an office with an edge. And for the icing on the cake, you have a computer rendering of what looks like the slickest and cleanest extra-urban office park complex ever.

I want to talk about this now because I have personally reached an interesting point in my own life. While my true passion is and will always be music (and, if so prompted, film), I have to resort to non-music means in order to pay the bills. Counting the times I worked during the summer school breaks, I have been in some kind of office environment for about two decades. (Funny enough, my office career began around the time this film entered and left theatres, later to become a significant cultural/social touchstone in its own right.) Right now, I am enjoying a nice peak position in the day-job career. The company recently moved to a brand new location out in the ever-developing Seaport district of Boston. The building is not that far-off from the one depicted in its album cover (and its pending next neighbor will look even more like it). Furthermore, I was able to obtain my own private office (complete with door) and am gradually making more adjustments as they become available to me.

Yet before I reached that point, I had to deal with an assortment of other environments. There were some that were quite nice yet I did not get that personal office. There were some that seem to have peaked long ago. Some were quiet, others were quite noisy. Some were accommodating and others were stifling. And then there’s the interpersonal exchange where it was largely good with a few mishaps here and there (and yes, a fair chunk of those were my fault). But mostly I just wanted to do my job in some kind of peace and music was a way to create a world onto myself. After all, how else was I able to do a crash course of vapour history?

I made a comment on the Vapor Memory upload of this album (linked at the bottom) where I noted how it evokes an environment that many of us deal with at best and despise at worst. Yet by listening to this album, we are choosing to be in this place. I concluded in my pithy way that the difference was being a matter of choice rather than fulfilling an obligation. In other words, this office complex is a world of our choosing. After all, the accommodations can be quite posh and wouldn’t it be great to enjoy it without having to deal with things like meetings in lieu of e-mails, overtly chatty colleagues, speaking in procedural and internal lingo and always aware that one bad action can mean the end of everything? This ability to enter into a universe on-demand through music is certainly what has kept me passionate about both listening to and making my own. With music, you can create any world you want. With vapour, you can even take the worlds you don’t normally care for and finally make it your own.

Album self-released approximately 2014-06-25

講評 : death’s dynamic shroud.wmv – CLASSROOM SEXXTAPE

This is another album that got me more intrigued with the possibilities of vapour (and I had already been sold on it by that point).  Like the previous one discussed, this was also a 2016 follow-up to a previous album, which gathered a certain acclaim not only within the vapour community but also a little from outside of it.  Both also work within a particular established concept that still allows for room for personal identification.  However, while 2814 was continuing to develop its sound beyond the initial vapour paradigm – and I will hopefully explain that more in a near future analysis (hint, hint) – dds.wmv continued to develop its sound more or less within that paradigm.  As for the concept, it is also much easier to write about this one than the other one as it comes with a description of its aim and there’s even a reveal of its construction.

Before I continue, I have not yet listened to anything before I’ll Try Living Like This.  But I don’t think this will affect what I have to say here.

This album, like their other ones, consists entirely of pre-existing music and sounds, with only a few exceptions here and there.  In the music, the sources are mostly recent pop songs with Miley Cyrus showing up frequently, even though it is only “Wrecking Ball” and “We Can’t Stop”.  There are also a lot of video game music and especially from the Final Fantasy series, which seems to be a staple for dds.  In the general sound department, iPhone ringtones appear frequently through the album.  Another frequent source of sounds were Vine snippets from a once budding and scorned pop starlet.  For the rest, they are field recordings of assorted other sounds and from video games.  There are a few moments where Apple’s Text-to-Speech feature is used to read messages in translation or just a series of “tweets” found on the random (“Someone come help me set up my tumblr?”).

With only a few exceptions – and it’s apparent if you listen to the source material – every sound has gone through some sonic colouring and manipulation.  The most common manipulation employed here – and what had defined vapour/vaporwave for the first couple of years – is a slower playback speed, where ten seconds of sound can be played out in twenty or thirty seconds or even more.  Reverb is an effect employed frequently as well as various modulations such as the flanger and the “underwater” effect (which is really just employing equalization).  Finally, there is also the loop effect where either a complete section or a smaller section can be endlessly played in rapid succession (“Do you like me?  Do you like me?  Do you like me?”).

This technique of modifying and replaying previously recorded material – dubbed plunderphonics by its self-declared creator – is most certainly not unusual, and, as stated earlier, a defining characteristic of vapour.  However, this is not just done for its own sake (although it would have been fine if otherwise).  This has a point:

Classroom Sexxtape utilizes sampling and sweeping song arrangements to explore the sexual obsessions and machinations of western society. The album’s distortion of pop music mirrors thematic elements of cultural infantilization, media hyper-sexualization, and systematic layers of sexual shame that many of us are bombarded with on a daily basis.

Before answering this, I should explain something about vaporwave in general that will, without a doubt, be recurring in future examinations and analyses.  Vaporwave may have started as a kind of personal amusement, but manipulating certain music from the 1980s was also done to make a point about consumerism and corporatism.  I have even seen the pithy description that vaporwave is basically “chillwave [which can also be understood as hypnagogic pop] for Marxists”.  This was a double edge sword as while it gave some credence to the art, it also made it seem more pretentious.  Also, “following the formula” gave no guarantees it would be received well, let alone remembered for more than a day or so.

Going back to CLASSROOM SEXXTAPE, it is not entirely clear which is the chicken and the egg here.  I would suspect that the concept came first and Tech Honors (who was the only one working on this directly) found the material to support it.  If that’s the case, I think it succeeds.  In fact, the first time I heard this, I found myself going to back to the emotions and thoughts I had when I was going through intermediate and high school, where I was dealing with sexual sensations and new social expectations and trying to balance all of this with myself … and more often than not, it ends up being this awkward mess.

An easy example to use for this point is called THIGH GAP.  The entire piece consists a heavily manipulated “Tattooed Heart” by Ariana Grande.  The original is clearly inspired by the 1950s pop ballads that would have been played on the dance floor at some secondary school gathering but given a current twist with her vocal performance.  What Tech Honors did was slow it down to where Ariana Grande sounds more like a tenor crooner than mezzo-soprano.  At a certain point, the word “rushing” (from the lyric “All I need is all your loving / To get the blood rushing through my veins”) repeats as if it were a record stuck on a deep scratch.  It resumes and then swells into this staggered canon-like effect where renderings layer on top of each other to where it becomes a thick sonic soup of sounds with only traces of its more noticeable parts.  The speed varies slightly where it gets slightly faster.  Towards the end, it slows and staggers its way to a hard end where it falls silent.  As I was listening to this, I immediately thought of David Lynch, which is no surprise given him employing 1950s and early 1960s pop songs and naming a certain current recording artist a personal favourite.  But it also took me back to that time when during the few times I went to some school dance, I was miserably romantic.  You go into it expecting these great feelings of high … but only if you are one of the chosen and beautiful ones.

But there is a flip side to this also.  Consider, arguably, the album’s ultimate track, SIDE ℬÆ「究極のカタルシス」[the subtitle is “Ultimate Catharsis”].  The foundation of this is an intermingling of two pop songs employing the same chord progression: Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away” and Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop”.  They are slowed down to the point where both of them – not celebrated for being great singers in their own right – sound something like Elisabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins fame.  Weaving in some video game music and some ringtones, it has the feel of being in the mist of an orgy-porgy complete with soma.  The stroke of genius occurs when after experiencing an emotional orgasm, the “Waves” ringtone plays … leading to a snippet from the earlier DISNEY PRINCE$$, where “Wrecking Ball” and Beyoncé’s “Blow” (amongst a few other sounds) turn into something out of Suspiria (or that crowd).  The party may have been great, but often the last thing felt is the hard crash.

So all in all, this may be something akin to something Roger Waters would have made had he been interested in what the current year youth are doing nowadays and had a library of sounds at his disposal.  But for all the brains put into it, it remembers to have a heart, which is the only way not only to feel something but also to change (if so prompted).

Album released on 2016-05-13 via Orange Milk Records (and through Ghost Diamond Collective)

講評 : 2814 – Rain Temple

2814 - Rain Temple

I figured I should start this journey examining vapour with the album that really sold me on exploring it even more than I already done starting near the twilight of 2017.  Before that, I got a “quick and dirty history lesson” and listened to a few key releases mentioned in that lesson.  And now, I was willing to put down some hard earned money on the vinyl edition (as well as their previous effort).  (Thankfully, I was also in the process of owning my first proper turntable.).

Overall, the album builds on the previous album’s atmosphere of a futuristic city space, which, of course, evokes Blade Runner.  (By the way, I wholeheartedly agree with these guys in that, while it ended up being a well-done effort on the part of both Zimmer and Wallfisch, 2814 should have been asked to score Blade Runner 2049.).  There is still that feeling of grime, wet sidewalks with scattered debris, glaring neon lights, and overcrowding of man and machine.  Yet, it is not completely grim and dour.  In fact, its long course is almost a kind of spiritual reawakening where it is possible to experience a deeper connection to things in a world seemingly devoid of any.  With each subsequent listen, I began to see the narrative play out in my own mind – an effect that has been long sought after explicitly by one-half of this project – of someone who lives in this environment yet experiences a vision that draws him to experience something deeper than he could have ever felt.  It’s a film that probably never meant to be made as your mind’s eye with the music already provides the means and the end.  (Though who knows, I may have a crack at it … in my own time.)

Personally, I am a sucker for the ambient and this fulfils that checklist with flying colours: heavy on atmosphere, subtle development and dynamism, slow burns leading to lingering climaxes.  And there are those who would say that this album is no different than what could have been heard previously.  For me, I hear the Future Sound of London, and particularly Lifeforms and Dead Cities, as a predecessor.  But I honestly don’t expect every single album to be some groundbreaking work.  (Plus, with very few exceptions, every work of art has a precedent if you are knowledgeable about such things.)  Being a solid and compelling work is often more than enough for me.  Chances are that if you have an affinity for the ambient, this will be right up your alley.

But having said that, this album does demonstrate that if it was made by artists who started from within the vapour scene, which started as a kind of amusing personal experiment gone viral, then that scene has grown by a significant bound.  This is not just a stylistic reform, which has been steadily going on since about 2014 or so, but an ongoing effort to have this music do more than just provide some “lolz” or even merely evoke memories, whether they be general or specific.  In other words, the ultimate aim is not nostalgia, but nirvana.  And while our paths may be different, we somehow end up in a place like the Rain Temple.

Album released on 2016-07-26 through Dream Catalogue

Also, I highly recommend listening to this via vinyl or cassette.  There is an extended coda/outro at the end of “Guided by Love” not present in either the digital or the CD version.  I have also noticed personally that, by the nature of being a double LP, the ambience has more room to breathe and can be appreciated more as there are natural breaks between each side.