The first time I realized I had anxiety and that it could totally disrupt my life was in December 2005, during finals week at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. That whole fall had been largely incredible, although between a verbally abusive (and deeply insecure) classmate from my college and the litany of bros and basic B's from UPenn, the collegiate intermixing afforded by the program I was on was decidedly awkward (let's just say I was probably the one person there who was living out a personal dream of studying philosophy in Belgium). Outside of the program, however, I spent much of the time alone, walking and listening to music (most memorably Missy Elliott, in particular Miss E...So Addictive and Under Construction, and Mastodon's Remission and Leviathan alongside healthy helpings of John Twells Type Records Podcast and Dublab when indoors) and reading in parks throughout The Netherlands and Belgium. Between September and the first week of December, I read constantly, including Gravity's Rainbow and A Thousand Plateaus--two of the most important books in my life; visited the Netherlands on the weekends, bringing back the first third eye-opening cannabis I had ever consumed; got to see on average three classic films a week in a movie theater (or lecture hall), helping me to develop a genuine love of film; traveled and learned all about the country where my grandmother was born, living (well, trying to) the one cultural ethnicity I've ever felt any pride about; and went to as many concerts and club nights as I could, experiencing a country and continent with an active 'dance music culture' for the first time in my life. Re-reading what I just wrote, it's hard for me not to cringe at how woefully precious and cliche that all sounds and if hadn't come to symbolize one of the last moments in my life that I felt "normal," I certainly wouldn't be sharing this (why am I sharing this? Oh yeah...read on.)
For then came finals week. You see, in Belgium and other European universities, the only classwork or test you are ever given is a single oral exam, all held over the course of a school week. Now, I was aware that public speaking made me uncomfortable (even in the form of a one-on-one oral exam) but what unfolded that week was nothing short of a traumatizing nightmare rendered real, as I went from oral exam to oral exam, totally choking and failing pretty much every class I had attended religiously throughout the semester (alongside the weekend academic conferences...hey, I had dreams of being a philosophy or cultural studies professor at that point).
That week is the primary psychological DMZ in my life between being blissfully unaware that I had anxious (and depressive) tendencies to learning what living with a crippling generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) means. As you many know, anxiety is treated in according to which of two forms it can take: general and acute. The acute form tends to be the kind that you see in the movies and on TV, whether it's Tony Soprano's panic attacks, Alison Pill's character on The Newsroom suffering from PTSD and running out of Xanax, or any other one of the countless pill-grabbing, "I think I'm having a heart attack" scenes that have become a trope of the "golden age of television." If a panic attack and other manifestations of acute anxiety can be compared to having a seizure, GAD is like that scene in the first Austin Powers movie where a henchman in run over by a steamroller while screaming "STOP!" for a comedically long of time. I always cite that scene because it perfectly captures both the sense of hopelessness and severe irrationality that are staples of living with anxiety.
Over the past twelve years, I've had my ups and downs, done my fair share of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and been prescribed the whole menu of anti-depressants, anxiolytics, mood stabilizers, and even anti-psychotics, only to discover that cannabis actually was a medicine (and the world's greatest mood stabilizer, at least for me). So while I'm often uncomfortable much of the day, I have also spent the last ten years learning how to manage the condition so that it doesn't suddenly take over and I'm not viewed as a liability or ticking time bomb, only to be treated with kid gloves. Due to the fact that I spend so much time thinking about and managing my anxiety, it doesn't tend to take me by surprise and thus I've never really dealt with panic attacks, though I've had my share of what I had always considered "freaking out." To be perfectly honest, while drugs have served as a means of self-medication over the years, they've also helped me to grow comfortable with the idea of losing control. But what about actually losing control? Well, as I found out about four hours ago, it's about as debilitating and terrifying as I've hopefully made it sound by now.
I really don't need to get into the details of why I just experienced the human mind's version of a death-defyingly bad acid trip. Hell, now I understand that those "freak outs" in the past would likely be considered panic attacks by most. Rather, at a moment like this, you're like a naked child in the woods, slowly rebuilding your sense of self, as neurons of self-doubt and self-loathing fire off mortar shells within your dome. So how does one get back home?
The 90s was a period rife with hyper-idealistic movements and mentalities about shedding all the moors and shackles of that fast-ending millennium. The internet provided a very real, somewhat accessible means by which a few could tell many about the impending actualization of freedom though information, hypertextuality, and global connectivity, then still only half-come to life, providing the perfect screen upon which was projected the hopes and fears of different subcultures, back when those were still a thing. Thus, you had cyberfeminism, posthumanism (championed by Rosa Braidotti and Cary Wolfe, amongst others), the CCRU and other Deleuze+Guattari-informed becomings, and so many other movements that seemed to share a common faith that in future times things would be better. The role that LSD's resurgence in popularitplayed in fueling this utopianary thinking might have actually been second to MDMA's psychiatrist-tried-and-tested ability to nudge one's emotional self towards breaking down internal psychic walls as whole dance floors turned into a watery whole.
I don't know about you, but I both remember and am constantly finding new examples of how some saw in drugs' (in particular entheogens') ascendency a whole other revolutionary potential left unrealized by the hippies, be it in the different "smart drugs" that popped up across post-cyberpunk graphic novels like Transmetropolitan, peak-60s personal pharmacology in Fear and Loathing, or the kind of socially-accepted self-medication as depicted in Jonathan Lethem's fantastic first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music. Set in Oakland, CA in a not-so-distant future, you get the sense that Lethem was a fan of Batman: The Animated Series in his futurist noir mystery where ambient noise and melodies come singing out from handguns and citizens are policed by their karma levels.
One aspect of the novel that's always stuck out to me is Lethem's portrayal of future drugs, powders given such telling names as Acceptol, Regrettol, Forgettol, Believol, and Addictol. What's particularly interesting about Lethem's slightly removed future is that not only are drugs legal and controlled by the government, but seemingly that same government has managed to eradicate all other drugs, keeping everyday users content by allowing them to experiment "with different combinations" to find the one that's juuuuuust right. As the protagonist Conrad Metcalf notes early on, "My blend is skewed heavily towards Acceptol, with just a touch of Regrettol to provide that bittersweet edge, and enough addictol to keep me craving it even in my darkest hours." In Lethem's world, drug use is not too taboo or a necessary evil, it just is. It's available to those who want it and/or need it to manage that little thing called life."
Hey, it's one way to deal. Too bad contemporary psychiatry is so insincere in its approach towards medication.
The Ambient Paradox
For whatever reason, I had never read nor considered reading the writings of David Toop, potentially because I had him mixed up with Julian Cope for some dense reason. And then, a couple months ago, I posed a question to a friend who knows considerably more than me about the critical differences separating exotica and fourth world music. Replying politely he half-asked, "Well, I'm assuming you've read David Toop's Exotica?" No, wasn't familiar! And while I've started to familiarize myself with some of its ideas, stumbling upon a pdf of the author's treatise on ambient music, 1995's Ocean of Sound, has led me down a separate but linked path to explore the myth of musical escapism as Toop found it. Seizing on Eno's application of "ambient music" as one of shifting the emphasis from making music to the act of listening, Toop quickly charts the "chipping away at the hierarchical, separated roles of producers and consumers" as having found its footing in disco's flow motion of mixed songs. The ritual of the club is "like an all-night performance of Balinese Gamelan or a Central African cult ceremony, the music moved through dusk until dawn" as ambient and dance music are mapped out atop one another. He goes back further into the nineteenth century and then off into countless directions, tracing how African, Latin, and jazz influences were dissolving rock's rigid boundaries well before the dawn of disco while a new tradition of trance was sneaking its way through the jam continuum constructed by such psychedelic agents as the Dead, War, Santana, LaMonte Young, Pharaoh Sanders, and so many others.
Toop's "chaotic underflow" of ambient music is given further definition via the free-floating associative nature of pre-millennial "non-specific dread" and "bliss." Twenty years later and both emotions are both very present and particularly specific, with dread induced by the proliferating multiplicities of a globalized society as well as by organized engines of prejudice popping up to give expression to that fear of the unassimilated other (or a million other hyper-specific reasons). The personal and political have gained a similar potency as they did when Toop wrote about the dissolution of the relatively recent boundary imposed between 'sound' and 'music.' And yet this new era of identity politics has gotten balled up with generational creative malaise that can sometimes take the form of a regressive "return to form" as examples of authenticity are held up and praised, old forms re-inhabited and tweaked, both in the underground (from freak folk to New Age to 80s synthetic exotica) and in the mainstream (country once again becoming the most popular genre of music, the repurposing of marginalized voices into EDM chart-toppers).
We have entered the age of memory as genre. Reissue culture now exercises considerable influence on trends that trickle their way up to the mainstream while "fourth world dance music" presents listeners with sanitized exoticism affixed with dancefloor-ready mechanisms that has warranted a shocking silence in terms of engaged criticism (mine is coming, as promised). When people comment on how all music is now ambient due to the fact that we never get to really listen anymore (at least in terms of the way idealized by Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers and experienced by a few fortunate millennials), what are they really saying? Remember cell phone rap? The terms refers to the idea that you could engineer a pop hit just by crafting an ear worm that could be easily mimicked by a 2006 cellphone. I fear that our general listening skills have only decreased in the time since as now we just pop on a playlist that segues into another playlist, with only the most ostentatious songs catching our attention and warraning further investigation (and that's assuming one is listening to a playlist of new music, not just reliable favorites, stagnating in the chrysalis of lived memory).
So does "all music is ambient music" mean that all music has become backdrop music, more important that it be conducive to working and gettin' shit done than challenging or, you know, requiring a considered listen? I don't know. I think it has and it hasn't. But it's in considering this double bind of a question that Toop's words once again serve to inform. He not only broke with the view of ambient music as "background music," he problematized it by asserting: "The whole idea of background music was a red herring, a distraction - there is no such thing as background music, in the sense that so-called background music is always deployed (though not always accepted) as a lifestyle accessory and lifestyle is a collection of strong signifiers." Toop held up the increasingly immersive quality of twentieth century as almost proof in and of itself, seemingly insinuating that immersiveness would imbue a certain mindfulness or reactivity in listeners.
And while I'm purely conjecturing here, for as savvy as Toop was at charting the way different musical traditions linked up with and even subsumed one another, he was perhaps less attentive to just how sophisticated late capitalism had become at assimilating all strains of resistance and heterogeniity. After all, for the time Toop spends obsessing over the digital resurrection of the dead via lost recordings and the music industry's perennial vampirism, he failed to presage that in just a few years time corporations could suck the entire life out of musical movements, as best exemplified in the downbeat genre (which became the muzak of hip hotels and fashion boutiques on the main street of our global village).
For it's in thinking about listening as an active, not passive endeavor that makes it hard not to wonder what the Toop of 1995 would make of listening to music in 2017. While some took the advent of the iPod as the key to a new level of personal soundtracking and sought to reclaim sonic territory in a non-fixed environment, the role that algorithms have come to play in how we discover music turned out perhaps a bit less utopianary than Toop may hoped. For let's look at one of the book's central animating questions.
What is ambient music? Calm, therapeutic sounds for chilling out or music which taps into the disturbing, chaotic undertow of the environment?
Now, a similar question can be posed to how we currently listen to and discover music. Has listening become passive accumulation of matrix-contained suggestions churned out by machine learning-assisted personal programming algorithms within Spotify and other streaming platforms or is it an active engagement with music culture's granular compositional matter in the form of shows, forums, scenes, friends, and optimized IRL? Playlists have become the new Muzak, that odious embodiment of corporate-funded background music, a sonic accessory/sumulacrum akin to the pictures of loved ones that hang in some desk jockeys' cubicles; a copy of a memory of better days.
And look, I have some near and dear friends who are born-again evangelists for the wonders that companies like Spotify bestow upon the plugged-in masses, looking up each artist that is recommended to them in their Friday new music playlist and reveling in new information being generated based on their unconscious and conscious listening habits. But it's also hard for me to feel particularly cheery about the state of music these days as I see the beautiful platform of information sharing that is the internet being relegated to a tool to recreate environments rather that discover new ones. The desire to control and soundtrack our environments with music that's "underground" and "critic-approved" has arguably fueled the rise of Pitchfork well before Pandora, Soundcloud, and Spotify came to town (oh yeah, and Apple and Tidal and whatever else). While I have prattled on about my deep-seated distrust of the "most trusted voice in music" at length in the past and will do so again in a forthcoming piece on how to discover new music (like, how to actually find out all the cool shit that's out there), this detour into assessing the contemporary state of ambient music and passive listening/consumership might benefit from a quick brush-up on how the music journalism landscape looks in 2017, at least according to data provided by SEMRush.
Where I Talk About P4K Shirking Their Responsibilities...Again.
As I discussed back in March, P4K has always been particularly savvy when it's come to SEO as they were able to position themselves as the authority site both in the eyes of lemming music fans and that great provider of information itself, Google. As you can see in the below graph, P4K's growth has picked up quite a bit in the past decade, well after they had established their Best New Music imprimatur as the golden ticket for any up-and-coming band who would eventually graduate to the pages of Rolling Stone, the one other music publication out there that both trumps Pitchfork's daily traffic and search presence and commands a somewhat similar (though severely diminished cultural) cache.
Part of the way Pitchfork ensured that their reviews would always appear at the top of the older editions of Google's search algorithm was by nofollowing every link that would take someone off their site. In SEO, when you nofollow a link, you're telling Google that it may be an ad or some other type of link that you don't want Google to pass on your "link juice" to and thus improve that site's rankings. Instead of being directed to a band's official website, we're still often shuttled to a Pitchfork review as the site had around an 8 PageRank back when that was still a thing. So while Pitchfork would likely cite any other reason than the one I've just conjectured, this line of reasoning makes particular sense when you've spent the past fifteen years both reading the site every day and working as a professional SEO (guilty!) For once Pitchfork got high off the whiff of carrying influence, they rode that puppy all the way to a $50 million buy-out by Condé Nast, publishing a series of canon-setting year-end and decade best-of lists that along with AllMusic, helped to concretize many online music fans' current understanding of music history (and which unlike AllMusic, has been largely relegated to the WayBack Machine as they began releasing new best-of lists alongside other demonstrations of their authority.
However, shortly after Pitchfork's buyout , the site suffered a near-catastrophic drop-off in traffic (as can be seen by that, well, huge drop-off in the below chart). This occurred following the launch of the site's new design in March 2016 and likely resulted in Pitchfork disappearing from some of the hundreds of thousands of searches that drive their currently 3.3 million daily visitors (who come via organic search results pages).
Since then, the site has set out to double down on its authority by publishing a series of lists on genres that have been seeing a considerable amount of renewed popularity amongst music listeners, in particular their lists of the top 50 ambient and IDM albums of all time. Revisiting that ambient list's introduction written by the site, I was struck be the following sentence:
For our exploration of the greatest ambient albums, we polled critics for their favorites, with the suggestion that “ambient” meant, in part, music that creates an environment, something like a cloud of sound, be it soothing, sad, haunting, or ominous.
What I find so remarkable in the above phrasing is the focus on ambient's music to "create" environments, rather than its ability to inspire creation in its listeners who are required to exert considerably more effort to uncover the many sonic treasures that exist within a top-shelf piece of ambient music. And while it is that great champion of considered ambience Keith Fullerton Whitman who earnestly poses the open-ended question of “What music isn’t ambient in the 21st century?”, its inclusion right beneath the site's preceding "loose guidelines" raises this demi dude's eyebrow straight off my dome. Oh, and don't worry, there's a Spotify playlist at the ready for the reader to start getting their ears dirty (and here's Pitchfork Spotify playlist, and here's...)
For let's not forget that when measured against Rolling Stone's 15-odd million daily organic search visitors or AllMusic's 9.3 million, Pitchfork's 3.3 million only looks unremarkable without the benefit of context.
The above graph is what dorks like myself use to show just how much a client is crushing, or being crushed by, their competitors as well as demonstrate a site's search visibility. The Y axis measure daily organic search traffic to a site while the X axis measures the number of search terms that a site ranks in Google for, with the top right the place to be. And what we see in the above graph is the old- and newguard of music underground music journalism being decidedly left in the dust by Pitchfork, even if it's traffic has diminished by a million since April.
But let's zoom out a little more.
Now that's fucking wild. As a member of the Brooklyn-based creative class, I can often overestimate the influence that sites like P4K, RA, or Fact have when weighed against the über-authority sites like AllMusic, Rolling Stone, and, uh, Billboard. And while the positioning of Songfacts.com takes away a bit visually from my greater point, it still speaks to a massive chasm that has opened up between these two tiers of music journalism. I mean, what is out there filling in that middle market of searchers?
Ohhhhh, now I'm starting to get it!
And that's why I start to get pissy about what I see as the shirking of responsibility by music publications like Pitchfork, not that they really had any to begin with. But there at least existed a passion in the writers that infected generations of music listeners past with a passion for new music rather than a sense of FOMO felt today when reading some awesome show/club/party recap (why do we recap everything? It's not the same as reviewing!) But now that P4K, Rolling Stone, and the countless other music sites are increasingly becoming reliant on or partnering up with the streaming services, the question of what influence one has over the other is more salient than ever before. (Also published today is an investigation by Liz Pelly into the potentially dangerous algorithms that run Spotify and you. Pelly is contributor to Pitchfork, a publication where her sister has worked since 2011. Just looking at ley lines people, move along now.)
Just look at the near-constant critical reevaluation of the UK hardcore continuum over the course of the 00s as speed garage gave way to grime which gave way to dubstep which gave way to UK Funky, bassline, and, er, wonky (wait, did the 'nuum climax into trap?!). The last decade has seen two of the last "original" contributions to a musical critical theoretical discourse emerged in the memory-obsessed forms of hauntology and hypnagogia. Perhaps best captured in the reductionist "pining for a future that never arrived," hauntology concerned itself with the paeans for the lost utopias promised by bygone government campaigns and rave culture in the UK, encapsulating more of a post-Blair malaise than signifying an actual stylistic genre as both Belbury Poly and Burial became the faux-genre's poster children. Hypnagogia soon became the flipside of this coin of nostalgia-entrapped music emanating from cultures of late capitalism, especially America, as a disconnected network of artists supposedly attempted to recreate half-remembered perceptions of 70s and 80s pop culture.. Both sensations-of-memory-as-genres shared a mirrored gaze towards the past, be it the one fetishized yet unlived by hauntology or the hazily recollected memories of 70s and 80s US pop culture found in hypnagogia.
It's noteworthy that my and others' introduction to vaporwave in 2012 as embodied in the work of James Ferraro, Fatima Al Qadiri, OPN, and New Dreams Ltd. first positioned it as something of a continuation of hypnagogia's humorous-yet-barbed interplay with the recent past, moving into 90s late capitalism when public space became corporate space and muzak, that ultimate corporate accessory, mutated into even more insidious and inoffensive forms. Of course today, vaporwave is nothing more than an accessory of a genre, the impetus behind vaguely nostalgic memes, clickbait fodder for uncritical music critics
As much as my generation likes to play dress-up in roles and subcultures they have only witnessed from online, our bodies remain the most important battleground for retaining some sense of autonomy in our increasingly homogenized, digitized world. But our bodies are also the last thing we have mastery over; we must cede to them when their pain overtakes us or our minds let us down. Perhaps that's why we've seen such a resurgence of interest in New Age reissues and new ambient classics like Huerco S.' Dettinger-indebted album from last year, music that can take ahold of or create an environment while not exactly engaging with it. Music itself is the accessory these days and ambient is just an en vogue trend.
<<<After all, when you've got the most. <<<trusted name in music churning out <<<irrelevant, corporation-championing tweets <<<totally devoid of musical content like these, <<<who can you actually fucking trust?
Authenticity v. Sincerity
As I've become increasingly active in my writing endeavors, I've found myself engaging in social media quite a bit, something I had always keep at a moderate distance until one of my best friends who was quite literally like my little brother passed away over four years ago. In the months and years that followed, I found it becoming a tool in which I could find anchors out in the real world, blabbing on about music and slowly (like molasses-slow) helped me to begin re-joining the world I had seemingly cast aside. I had always been quite distressed by social media as I saw it as forum for people to project an idealized, but insincere (and insecure) self to the world. Over the past several years I have formed both meaningful friendships with internet interlocutors and passing exchanges of valuable information and other things related to my actual life.
Blame it on my midwestern upbringing, but I've always had an obsession with approaching life as sincerely as possible. Now, we've been living in the midst of a cultural obsession with authenticity for some time now, which I've always found to be a well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed practice. After all, it's in boasting of one's authenticity or putting considerable effort into projecting an authentic self to the world that one creates the grounds for others to poke holes in inauthentic moments, the "selling out" of the last decade or so. Perhaps that's why we're seeing a shift to faux-humility via Kendrick Lamar's earth-shatteringly awesome single "HUMBLE." off his most-recent album, DAMN. released back in April. Like Kanye and Drake before him, I've always held an ill-reasoned but sincere dislike of Lamar's music, outside of the earth-shattering anger of "The Blacker the Berry." And again like those other two kings of popping wheelies on the zeitgeist, my dislike for Kendrick extended more to his preternatural acumen for being two steps ahead of the mainstream, which I think other people refer to as "jealousy," a feeling made easier when such an artist fails to create an album-length statement with which I can connect (I know, I know, his other albums are great, but they ain't for me...yet).
I do not for one second doubt Lamar's own humility as I am now equally convinced of his much-hyped brilliance following a couple months of cruising around in the actual Ambient Jeep listening to the new album and reveling in the deeply thoughtful anger that permeates the entire body of work. I mean, just watch "DNA" with its opening vocal sample of white folk talking shit on the radio; this is mad af Kendrick and it's the best type of anger: constructive. Hell, just look at the Bill Maher scandal. I was born in 1984 and I don't remember ever hearing such a unified and pointed response from the African-American community stating without equivocation that it's not a word anyone else can use (which, obviously, but the rise in its causal use has been frightening in recent years as the myth of a post-racial America briefly took hold). And this follows discussions of it on TV that are significantly more hefty than that one episode of Boston Public I saw in 1998. That is the type of sincere, constructive anger with which I can I fux. And then Ice Cube let forth one collective, long-form lecture that really seemed to shut Maher and other progressive racists the fuck up...if just for a second.
To bring this tangent back to my original point, as much as I want to revel in one of the most popular voices of my generation calling for general humility (and some asses with some stretch-marks), again, humility calls for a certain mindfulness and self-awareness that just isn't baked into YouTube culture, like at all. Believe me, younger people, you do not want to know what it ls like to actually give "zero fucks." Trust me, something in you has to die first for that to happen, or at least it did for me and the few others who that term actually applies to (you saw Spider earlier, yeh?). Anyhoo, the reason I use sincerity as my preferred virtue of choice is that to be sincere requires a degree of self-reflection as you have to be honest with yourself before you can (and want) to be honest with others. There is faux sincerity aplenty in the midwest and elsewhere, but being sincere is admitting when you know jack squat about something, even if you're voicing a strong opinion on it (something I do on the regs). It's deferring to the experts and it's talking about shit that makes you uncomfortable, be it in confidence with a friend or via a public forum. (Hi!)
Damn, Kendrick seems like one seriously sincere dude.
Comments Section Mishaps #1
In the hours and days since I had my meltdown, I've been watching my work pile up and yet this is the only writing I can bring myself to do at the moment (though I am chipping away at the pile as my livelihood depends on it). For that panic attack was just the cherry on top of a miserable week holed up at home with a nasty sinus infection and whatever else has been keeping me from getting shit done. I don't handle situations like the above all too well--having an assload of work and being unable to do it--and I realized one way I vent my frustration is by getting into comment sections flamewars, something I otherwise avoid like the plague. It started last fall when I had recently joined the private Facebook group Now Playing, a forum that has a large number of folk I'd characterize as white, rockist dude bros. Nonetheless, posting weird-ass electronic music soon helped me to find an awesome network of virtual buddies. But early on, following a day spent bedridden (spring and fall have become my sinuses' enemies) I decided to go on a rant decrying the community as a hotbed of casual misogyny and well, you can imagine all the fun that unraveled. By the time I was at dinner with a group of friends that evening and having been called a "sincerity troll"--a phrase I still have no clue as to what it means--I realized this was all too rich and pointless for my blood and vowed to avoid such online flamewars in the future.
So it's been in reviewing my actions over the past few days that I found myself initially at a loss for getting involved in not one, but two comments sections on topics near and dear to my heart. The first was the aforementioned RA article on "Fourth World Dance Music" written by the absurdly stretched-thin Andy Beta (I have nothing personal against the guy, but feel like he's the IT guy of electronic music writing: forced to cover miles-wide territory of subgenres in which he seems to often possess inch-deep knowledge. You need more than him and Philip Sherburne to cover all things electronic, editors). Not that those in the RA comments section agreed with my comments as I was deemed an arrogant asshole and as a friend might put, "downvoted into oblivion." I thought it was all pretty funny, but alas, different strokes...
Comments Section Mishaps #2
The other comments section snafu came as a result of my receiving of Google alerts for terms relating to "asexuality" and "demisexuality," both of which saw a considerable increase this week. Now, at times like this, when I'm confronted with such a debilitating sense of powerlessness, I can't help but chuckle at the fact that being a demisexual with anxiety feels like I should be the butt of some mean joke about millennials. And being a self-loathing millennial myself, I am in no way innocent of millennial bashing. But it's a far different feeling when reading a hateful article that should be a joke, but sadly isn't. You see, I started writing this "review" with the idea of "Hey, wouldn't it be crazy to review a trio of ace ambient and cosmic synth folk-pop records after experiencing a panic attack?" But in doing so, I soon found myself piecing together the different stories and articles I've read this week, only to discover that there is in fact a precedent for most of the ideas expressed so far (sup Toop!)
Which brings us to a recounting of the time I thought it would be a good idea to engage with an article on alternative sexuality published in the decidedly alt-right site The Federalist. A pleasant side effect of being ill has been getting to indulge in some catching up with TV, most notably in the form of the masterful new season of Twin Peaks. Another side effect has been falling down internet rabbit holes, spurred by said Google alerts that led me straight to a piece entitled "Why Sexual Preferences Will Never Stop Racing Down The Rabbit Hole." The whole thing tautological rabbit hole of rhetoric in which the author Georgi Boorman takes issue with the admittedly regrettable (in how it was written) Times article on sapiosexuality, a term coined online in 2008 that refers to people who are sexually attracted to one's intellect.
Articles like the one in the Times, which unlike their fantastic column on demisexuality, are cannon fodder for alt-right traditionalists who are nonetheless frighteningly famliliar with the rhetoric of identity politics and use it to advance a evangelical Christian agenda of heteronormativity by claiming that "names" like sapiosexual are a means to make insecure libertines (her word!) feel validated and thus demand special protection, all the while leading to the unraveling of society. The whole thing is a dizzying odyssey that draws a parallel between the proliferation of sexual identities and intra-evangelical infighting in the form of the "sola feelings" controversy (tell me that link doesn't read like an Onion article), which is the evangelical version of elevating feelings to the role of supreme "authority in all matters of theology and practice." For the author, the journalistic validation of alternative sexualities relates back commonly-held belief on the alt-right that feelings are being used to prop up bullshit identities that can in turn demand special privileges and unravel traditional morality as we never knew it. The whole thing would be laughable if it wasn't so well-written and its reason so insanely faulty--when appropriating the "social construction" line of reasoning, don't forget it applies to cis-gender heterosexual identity as well. It also served as a cold-shower reminder of just how Facebook and other the internet has fosters a silent segregation in this country, turning me momentarily into a troll before remembering the depressing nature of comments sections.
I don't think that it is much of a coincidence that transportive New Age and soothing fourth world music would experience a resurgence alongside the ongoing critical reevaluation of ambient music during such a divisive and, well, anxiety-inducing period in America's and humanity's history. I mean, who would expect the YouTube-facilitated Midori Takada reissue on Palto Flats--technically co-released with We Release Whatever The Fuck Records, who felt the need to press an "audiophile" 2xLP version" that was simply just cut at 45 pm and forcing shops that carry it to charge upwards of $45--to be flying off the shelves? (Last I heard it had sold 7,000 copies so far, a not-small number when top-shelf rappers like Vince Staples maybe joke about selling 5,000 units.) But is the constant release of "lost classics" of ambient music a reflection of our seeming desire to run away from any ideas that clash with our own, to de-friend and unfollow those who willingly or accidentally reveal deep-seated prejudices?
Though it went largely (but not totally) uncovered by the dance music press and mentioned by only a few 'big-name' producers/DJs on social media, there was yet another disquieting dust storm kicked up by white cis-male dub techno producer Conforce (following in the path set down by Ten Walls and Berceuse Heroiques Gizmo) when he left the below comment on the YouTube video for Lady Starlight's edition of Fact Mag's "Against the Clock" video series.
What's a real bummer is that not only was his just one of many sexist comments that further reveal the bigotry and sexism that pervade so much of dance music, moreso was how the scandal played out in the artist's obligatory Facebook apology
Alongside the comments slamming the artist for his non-apology and apparent refusal to acknowledge the harmful nature of his statements were plenty of white male fans, who like Boorman took this flogging of their idol as a call to stand up against the SJW beatdown, ignoring those who reasonably explained why Conforce's comment and "apology" were so offensive (it discourages female-identifying persons from possibly joining dance music's boy club; he tried to explain away his comment by mentioning that it occurred when she was discussing her "passion for nail art," in turn failing to acknowledge how such comments reflect deep-seated and negative perceptions of women). It was an all-too-typical internet shitshow that displayed that even in house and techno, a genre created by the marginalized for the marginalized, there thrives these outmoded ideas and prejudices that, not surprisingly, mirror the genre's long-lasting colonization by white, often European men.
And don't get me wrong, I review quite a few white European men in this space (a bit too many, admittedly) and certainly am not anti-white dude (though I can also promise non-white dude interviews are forthcoming...let's just say I'm not super aggressive about people being punctual in their replies, no point in trying to force it). But when looking over this week's trio of whimsical, transportive reissues of music made in the 80s and 90s by all white men with one white female, it's hard not to ponder that genre's often homogenous racial make-up. Indeed, it is far easier to create escapist music when your reality does not command your full attention to, you know, surviving and thus having the luxury to simply create art. And what about those who seek to review and DJ ambient music? Well, maybe it's the exhaustion talking or just looking at my track record, but for as much as I love to talk about music, it's not created in a vacuum, no matter what its creators might say. Nonetheless, as we'll see below, some of the genre's brightest and, yes, overlooked figures did just about everything possible to create the ideal conditions in which to make oceanic music that at once calls upon different musical traditions and tropes while forging its own path ahead. But as a mediocre critic with a deep-seated love for music that is all varieties of transportive, its ignorable yet infinite complexity encouraging the most free of associative thinking, it's hard not to and link these disparate and all-too ephemeral digital-cultural documents, lest they go fully ignored.
Addendum: While I missed this when I hit publish, I have since found out along with the rest of internet who cares that Konstantin from Giegling has chosen to be considerably less coy then Conforce and simply came out saying, in Groove, of all places, that women are "usually worse at DJing than men." (It seems like just yesterday white DJ's could say anything they damn well pleased in the European dance music press. The times....?) Well, thanks for sharing that, Konstantin, and thanks to the fact that dance music may finally be seeking some sanity, your career is over. Byeeee. Ah, safe house, just a week ago you were a minor annoyance, but now you've again reminded us that no one (particularly female-identifying persons) is safe. And now it turns out everyone actually hated Giegling all along. Fun stuff.
OK, Let's Review Some Albums
We tend to talk a lot about reissues around these parts. Well, when we're not talking about dance music twelves of course. For as much as I love covering new music, nothing gives me more satisfaction as a music listener than finding an older record that is new to me. As we've discussed before, there tends to be several annoying schools of rhetoric about reissues and the one that's perhaps the most obnoxious to me is the "lost classic" school of thought. And it's not just because seemingly every reissue that comes out that's not by an 'established' artist bears that press release cliché. It's the fact that those obsessed with discovering new music to achieve some sense of glory, to colonize largely-untraveled sonic terrain, to penetrate virgin...yeah, it's a super patriarchal mindset, yep.
Part of the reason I've been thinking about both dance music's extended fourth world phase, the renewed interest in fourth world pioneer Jon Hassell, and the reissue industry's recent push of deeper cuts from the likes of Cybe and Randomize has to do with the rapid rise of Music From Memory, a label I had a brief but torrid affair with last year as I devoured their Leon Lowman, Vito Ricci, Michael Turtle, and Roberto Musci releases (alongside with the P4K-approved Outro Tempo comp from earlier this year). As much as I still love all five releases, as I went back to the well to explore out Music From Memory releases, it all just started to feel a bit too on-the-nose. Part of the reason I responded so strongly to that string of releases is helped me to better understand my own personal obsession with sonic artificiality and transportive exploration in both the figurative and literal senses. Musci and Turtle in particular led me into a world of new-to-me artists who sound like they are sincerely in search of creation something both familiar and new while also achieving a real sense of delicacy within their compositions, something the stilted MIDI jazz of The System or Criola's plastic Africa just doesn't do for me.
Iit has been in becoming familiar with two temporally and geographically-removed sets of sonic travelers recently given new life by the ace Astral Industries imprint that I've helped to better understand what I'm personally seeking for in transportive music. For a label whose first two releases were a Deepchord in 2014 full-length followed by a gaseously gorgeous Wolfgang Voigt album in 2015, you'd think Astral Industries would get a bit more love from the press. However, it's been the label's output in the last two years that has truly caught my ear as they turned their focus backwards to shine a light on several considerable purveyors of immersive sound worlds.
What's especially interesting about the seeming disinterest in the label--and their records are apparently selling, but I've been hard pressed to find any significant articles about them--is that while they're currently trading in a not dissimilar strain of European fourth world and ambient as Music From Memory label. Unlike that label's tasteful, inoffensive style of layout design, Astral Industries has committed itself to adorning their releases both old and new in the cartoonish, high school journal doodling art of comic artist Theo Ellsworth. To be honest, I hadn't given much thought to the effect the artwork might be having on their reception until the very person who first introduced me to the label commented on their dislike for the album art (while others have been quite positive about it, pointing me to Ellsworth's comic work). But in a time of renewed interest in sonic traveling, why does Astral Industries feel so delightfully off-trend?
And I don't have an answer for the general indifference seemingly extended to the label, especially when they've turned me onto a number of ambient pioneers and notable practitioners I was previously unfamiliar with. And unlike Music for Memory, one gets less the sense that they're aiming to capture a particular sound--mostly 80s plastic-sounding exoticism--than a general vibe. The first Astral Industries release I got to really experience IRL was their reissue of The Heavenly Music Corporation's Lunar Phases, replete with meditating spaceman on the cover. And while I found repackaging a 90s ambient classic that, like many others from that period, suffers from dated album art (at least for now) with somewhat kitschy but also charming artwork to be a rather unique move, it's also led me to reflect on the cost of actually being unique as a label specializing in the kind of background music that provides endless listens. I realize I've already used the word transportive several times in this article, but please allow me to use it once more. Across the seven considerable releases put out by the label so far, a distinctly transportive vibe has emerged as the primary throughline connecting each release.
In music, transportive can refer both to music that takes the listener to a wholly imaginary place and music that evokes other musical customs (like fourth world music). If we recall back to earlier in this piece, Toop found "immersive" to be his descriptor of choice, readily giving the music a sense of agency for once. But twenty years on and one global village myth later, the dual-edged significance of "transportive" lends it particularly well to a moment in which artists are able to achieve a whole new degree of familiarity with a culture or sonic tradition no matter where they find themselves, first world, third, or otherwise. And so when I found myself picking up a copy not of Lunar Phases but rather a 2xLP set of The Original Recordings by a Dutch ensemble from the 80s called CHI, it felt all too relevant that I was greeted with music that is transportive in a way that blurs the line between the term's two predominant usages. Recorded in a remote farm in the small town of. Moordrecht, The Netherlands over the fall and early winter of 1985, the six musicians involved in The Original Recordings often played for much of the day, honing their intra-personal musical vocabulary and developing a sound that is very much their own. That said, according to de facto leader Hanyo van Oosterom, "CHI started in the late punk years in the early eighties. A time of changes. Brian Eno and David Byrne released one of the best albums ever: "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts" that was a real mindblower. Also artists like Robert Fripp, Jon Hassell, CAN and King Crimson were a big inspiration". But what CHI achieves that only Can in that group did as well is a kind of communal mysticism accomplished through endless practicing and the developing of the group's hazy, signature sound and language.
Of all the material collected on The Original Recordings, "Kuhl" is perhaps best suited to serve as the intro track, both back in '85 and today. Opening on a sustained drone coaxed out of some string instrument that straddles the line between Eastern and Western and which is soon met with unhurried hand drums and a patient, non-synchronized chorus of muted horn-like blasts, the seemingly formless composition coalesces into an otherworldly groove that serves as the basis for the song's remaining five minutes. Both then and now, it's tempting to lump the various foreign elements present in the mix as world music, but here both the self and the other is rendered alien when cast over the group's unique form of musician interplay. They never once emphasize the exotic elements but rather seem to adjust their own musical thinking to allow for an infinite process of synthesis to unfold. "Before The Mountain" takes the listener deeper into the thick of it as a moody wind instrument hangs over faux-delayed drum and unsettling pads. What sounds like the screaming guitar from the Top Gun soundtrack pops up in the mix, but is smothered in reverb and delay, robbing this typically phallic instrument and sound of its potency. Just how egalitarian things actually were in the CHI camp are a mystery to me, but after repeated listens, I'm still finding the type of attention to detail and thoughtful call-and-response that one typically hears on a Can record.
As the fog hanging over the mountain crawls down its side, we move to the album's B-side and the track "Hopi." It's easy writing from this vantage point in music's historical development, but both on my first and tenth listen of this particular track, I thought "Heh, this is like a chopped-and-screwed version of Eno and Hassell's Fourth World." And while there are numerous parallels to be made with the group at one point evoking his signature trumpet sound on both "Hopi" and the following "Twisted Camel," they're obviously confident enough in their own sound to make such direct nods to their influences. It's over the spiky groove of the latter that the group utilizes samples of spoken word similar to that real mindblower made by Eno and Byrne. However, where My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is all MIDI instruments and slick production, there's a decidedly more crunch-y, organic sound at work on The Original Recordings that manages to makes the indecipherable vocals all the more remarkable.
The twenty-minute "Mahat" which occurs at the album's midway point feels very much like this album's heart and a summary of the many strengths flexed by the members of CHI. As the different members each add a different tone to the mix, heavily reverbed percussion at first sounds like rain drops but gradually coalesces into an accented, driving beat that is greeted by a chorus of horns. But rather than introduce a melodic phrase, the horns simply push out a vaguely tonal note until a reed instrument takes the lead to add a hint of heavily narcotized jazz. Soon the other horns begin to enter the mix as CHI engage in their own form of a round of jazz solos, but at a pace so glacial that this barely registers before the recurring reed motif take dominance. This give-and-take goes on for well over ten minutes with the drums ratcheting up and bringing the energy back down before disappearing entirely from the mix as a multi-layered drone provides the bedding for a docile high-end melody to swoop over the proceedings and bring this epic display in restraint to a close.
The album's final portion kicks off with the sticky-sounding drums of "Soppin" alongside a dramatic electric piano line that adds a sense of urgency to situation. A sultry sax soon enters the mix, hovering above as the drum hits grow in density, each hit leaving a scatter shot pattern behind it until the undulating groove tires exhausts itself. A much cleaner and driving drum rhythm kicks off "Dance" with the mutant trumpet quietly blaring to form a quivering bed upon which a wooden mallet-led pattern is let loose. "Dance" sees the members of CHI at their most animated, approaching crescendos readily and playfully, teasing one direction before darting another as the many disparate elements, including a toneless and rhythmic woodwind instrument, lock into an irregular groove that recalls an almost-workmanlike dedication to repetition and consistency.
There is an indelible swampy feel to The Original Recordings as each song unspools slowly and purposefully, engulfing the unsuspecting listener in its own orbit of time and space. "Kuhl II" ends the album with something of a statement of purpose as an abbreviated jam showcases a delicate woodwinds chorus alongside the album's many different rhythmic and textural elements to create a brief, engrossing, and tantalizing coda to a uniquely individualistic album.
Demonstrating that their focus is not on one single period of history or style of music, Astral Industries truly got my attention with their recent reissue of Kim Cascone's Lunar Phases album released under his Heavenly Music Corporation alias (taken from the Fripp/Eno No Pussyfooting album). Outside of well-known touchstones like the Gas and Biosphere discographies, 90s ambient music will likely become a reissue cottage industry once the many manifestations of the genre in the 70s and 80s are exhausted, making this release a rather prescient release on Astral's part, in my opinion. The fact of the matter is, even though I had sighted the reissue via Boomkat, it wasn't until Count Zer0 pulled out his recently-purchased copy following the recording of Two-Seat Jeep Vol. 2 that I truly became curious. As unironic bird chirps and running water was soon joined by a circling high-end melody, I asked what the record was, prompting him to respond, "Oh, some 90s ambient album that was never available on vinyl." Since that exchange, I have learned about Cascone's Silent label alongside such acts as Skylab, Banco De Gaia, and many other chill out room faves from Mr. Zer0 and through my own searches, realizing that I have far more to discover about a genre that's too-often treated as sophisticated background music.
Lunar Phases is a real testament to how prevalent kosmische and fourth world musical ideas were during that period, even if they weren't readily identified as such. Opening track "Energy Portal" does indeed serve as the entryway to Cascone's seemingly continuous sound world (which is made all the more remarkable when one learns that this reissue is actually absent the original's second track, "Seafloor Starlight"). It's easy to take in Lunar Phases over the course of a single sitting and not notice much changing, though the music does seem to undulate in an oceanic fashion, something that was quite intentional according to the liner notes:
The material collated on this third release from Heavenly Music Corporation was composed specifically for St. Giga in Japan, a satellite broadcast radio station transmitting ethereal audio harmony 24 hours a day. What made this station otherworldly was its programming; motivated by tidal movements, the aquatic ebbs and flows of each day synchronized to the activity and intensity of the music broadcast.
Indeed, this is music that seems to affix itself to the present moment, augmenting it however much the listener wishes it to, whether slightly tweaking the ambience or diving headfirst into Cascone's layered and intricate compositions. Ideas and sounds emerge and disappear like passing flotsam while more substantial currents like the wordless chants and chunky bass line primarily anchor "Energy Portal" until a hi-hat pattern enters the final third of the mix, gently nudging the composition along into the ether. "St. Giga" opens up in what feels like a cavernous cove, a pulsating bass note and plaintive lead line serving to cohere the disparate elements that fade in and out of the mix. The idea of "painting with sound" is one that has been around long before ambient music, but it's in Cascone's considered use of feedback or echo that he evokes the sensation of light reflecting off water or sound ricocheting off of stone.
Played as a whole, the six pieces collected on this edition of Lunar Phases segue into one another with astonishingly little effort, but some pieces shine a bit brighter when taken on their own. For instance, the title track is a delectable six-and-a-half minute piece of trance-inducing arpeggiations that don't so much chug along as they cascade and ripple with Cascone's increased phasing inducing an anxious euphoria in this listener before a light kick drum alleviates the tension as the song's different elements run their course. A lesser producer would have gone for a more immediate emotional payoff, but Cascone is clearly one to play the long game, especially when creating oceanic music to soundtrack just that, that impossibly-large body of water that appears homogenous on its surface but contains near-infinite multitudes of organisms and possibilities.
Entering into the album's back half, the glistening, hypnotic opening keyboard streams of "Nautilus" make for one of the album's more distinctively minimalist pieces as the keys seem to take on a life of their own while the producer re-introduces those birds songs and running water from the album's opening, but this time in miniature to expand a momentary scene into an extended meditation. "Cloudless Light" is built around Ash-Ra-like synth arps and shooting stars as Cascone seeks to join the skies with the heavenly water of the ocean, binding the astral and the aquatic at their cosmic seams. The track ends in an unusually finite silence that serves to clean the slate for the eerie pads and acidic trappings of closer "Orgone." While contemporary producers like Lorenzo Senni are praised for taking energy-filled motifs and depriving them of their rhythmic release, Cascone demonstrates how this old trick can be done in a much more unhurried and patient manner, contracting and expanding the acid bass line while the digital yawns of his pads signal the ending of this cycle.
Our third and final reissue that we're taking a look at this week is Love All Day's repackaging of the work of Planetary Peace's Synthesis, an album made by the wife-and-husband duo of Will & Kalima Sawyer, American ex-pats who had arrived in London in the fall of 1980 intent on making a series of recordings prior to the arrival of their first child in March of the following year. Having assembled their mail order Serge synthesizer kit themselves, the duo set about recording the nineteen enchanting, beguiling songs found on Synthesis that fuse centuries of British folk traditions with the many sounds enabled by their synthesizer and an irrepressible sense of whimsy. Though it first saw release via cassette last December, it wasn't until last week that a few of the 250 vinyl copies recently printed made their way to the Lower East Side's emporium of chill, Commend, the retail outpost for the many endeavors of Matt Werth's estimable RVNG label group (which includes personal favorites Freedom To Spend). I was made aware of this by my best friend who characterized the recordings as "Amps For Christ if they had used synthesizers instead of guitars."
That my friend would invoke those high priests and priestesses of spiritualist folk rock in characterizing the music of a duo whose recordings were discovered at the yard sale of a New Age DJ was all I needed to bring up Planetary Peace's Bandcamp page and spend the one pound needed to obtain a digital copy of the record. And while the Amps For Christ comparison is truly spot-on in both group's hymnal-esque phrasing and circuitous melodies, I found myself drawing comparisons with another 'lost New Age pop classic,' the recently reissued Keyboard Fantasies by Beverly Glenn-Copeland. Both Planetary Peace and Glenn-Copeland were lumped into the New Age scene in the distribution of their music and while both records' music is undoubtedly concerned with the type of metaphysical matters often confronted in New Age music, it's also much more animated and structured than a lot of the free-form drones popularized by Iasos' many acolytes. Frankly, it's somewhat surprising that both releases haven't been linked more closely to Gigi Masin and his Winds album, a collection of ambient sea shanties that was well-received in the the wake of the Music From Memory compilation Talk to the Sea.
And to be fair, well-tuned blogs like Listen To This! have shone a light on both Masin and Glenn-Copeland likely because their music bears the many transportive hallmarks of ambient and New Age music, encouraging the listener to close their eyes and detach from the world (or to half-listen to while working). Synthesis, at least at first, appears to trade in the other definition of transportive with opener "Festival of Humanity," a rousing number that could have easily been a hit in the post-Deadhead Renaissance Faire scene of the 70s and 80s. "I Hear the Drums" pairs Raymond Scott-like rhythmic plonking with the majestic mantra perfectly harmonized by the Sawyer's to create a retro-futurist poem to the rhythms that animate every facet of life. Both "Christ is Coming" and "Silence of the Night" trade in traditionalist folk fashions but the synthetic instrumentation adds a whole other dimension to Planetary Peace's music that, for this listener, calls to mind a parallel yet different world where such daring stylistic fusion wouldn't need to wait for the rest of the world to catch up to it.
Elsewhere on the album, the duo displays deft hands at creating advertisement or kids show-ready jingles, not unlike those found on the recently released Moomin soundtrack from Finders Keepers (which is a big hit around these parts). "Step High" sounds like the soundtrack for children's cardio class while "Four Four" plays like a chase sequence in the candy kingdom. And while taking in all of Synthesis's nineteen tracks at once might be a bit much for some listeners, "I Am That I Am" makes a strong case for being a future mixtape/podcast favorite with its soaring soliloquy on the singularity of self. The redundancy of the song's title calls to mind the release's evocative cover photo that shows the duo at their Serge workstation, gazing into each other's eyes while their hands stay busy keeping the ship afloat.
What makes listening to Synthesis such a disorienting experience is that this celebratory, jovial music that seems destined for a live setting was actually recorded at night in a little cottage near Hampstead Heath in the center of London when things quieted down enough for the couple to unspool their sonic narratives. The backstory behind Synthesis absolutely helps to heighten the listening experience as this plastic, almost commercial music replete with simple sing-alongs becomes something much more deep and intimate, the product of two wildly inventive souls conducting an artistic exorcism of sorts before their lives would soon begin to revolve around a third.
As they note in the album's liner notes, "Once our daughter arrived, we more or less dropped it all; it is actually a minor miracle that you happened across one of the very rare cassettes that we got around to distributing!” And indeed, if there is a better two-word descriptor for Synthesis than "minor miracle," I surely can't think of one. For while "lost classics" bring with them considerable baggage in the form of hype and being reduced to click-bait titles, minor miracles are happy just to exist, bringing no pretension or mistaken notions of their own importance as they are often brought into being through modern day rituals designed to transmute the hopes and anxieties and cross-pollinated ideas of their creator into a shapeless, shamanic byproduct. And though "lost classics" like Synthesis are often confined to comically-small-run pressings (250 in this case), making one question why you'd even reissue a private press classic if only a handful of people can actually own it at a reasonable price. Then again, at the rate things are going, if it doesn't end up on Spotify, will it even exist?
Stay tuned. Dog knows I will.
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