Anniversary · Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Miami Vice – Palm Haze, 2013

While he vanished before we knew it, Miami Vice left a definite mark on like-minded producers and helped define vaporwave. In it’s year-long span, his music came in fragments that went from one early trademark to the next with surprising ease. You had spacy ‘mallsoft’, sinister funk riffs, smooth jazz, and in this case, self-composed v-wave before that was so common. On the other hand, the thing that insists to haunt the whole project is this blurry, downbeat view of ‘paradise’. Where his debut’s ‘paradise’ was uneasy to the point it would fit an obscure 80’s disaster film, Palm Haze seems to steep itself in the heartbreak that can come with nostalgia.

It’s so sweetly eccentric on the surface; even with the groovier bits, each sound warbles and shimmers softly like an odd creature. Imagine melting synthwave into seafoam and you get something like this. Like the best vaporwave, MV opts to use lo-fi as a smooth balm that renders this weird sensation we call the eighties in a more tender and luxurious light. Once I listen close though, I get the feeling this isn’t a paradise meant to last or regain it’s old glory. As much as the synths burst with that eighties pastel, the melodies give an idea that they can’t keep nurturing and entertaining us. Whether it’s the voice of a broken toy, a worn VHS or the beach itself, they aren’t here in spirit. They’re intent to sulk and hide. The pleasure is empty then, but the refreshing part is that Miami Vice doesn’t look past the emotional weight. Palm Haze isn’t another edgy e-boy gazing off into the dystopia. The way MV does it, I can feel the innocent dismay in this scenario.

Whether you’re talking it’s period acccuracy, emotions or ghostly presence, that extra mile MV took in ‘dubbing’ these songs to real VHS makes everything three times as effective. When you render the 80’s sound that unmistakable magnetic decay and not another Com Truise polish-overload, not even a fanatic like Fire-Toolz can tell this was self-composed until I tell them. It brings this gushing, detuning effect that turns already eccentric sounds surreal while leaving them too ‘choked-up’ to clearly ‘speak’ out their sadness.

Take that lead on “Palm Haze”; the way it chirps and frolics around is just adorable, while the melody nears depression. It tries and tries to feel better and it doesn’t work despite it’s own sweetness. Move on to the farewell that swallows up “HyperColor”, ironically using the same bubbly synths as before, until it fades into “NeoSynth”‘s quiet abandonment. The outro to “Tropics” brings the most sublime textures on the album just as a tiny bell pleads to me and drowns it’s sorrows. The whimsy sits at odds with grief here. Is this how it feels to watch good memories wash away against my will, or burst a young person’s innocent bubbles? All I can say for sure is: it feels eerily fitting to revisit this when I’m approaching 20.

While “Tokyo Negative” was quick to strike a nerve with me through that forlorn twinkling, I’d call it the album’s ‘refuge’. I can see shores flourishing in a calming, cinematic slo-mo. Someone wraps themselves in a blanket, concerned for their future but grateful to have someone to help. (like the pair on the cover?) Even if they’re yet to the fix the problem, they can persevere through their support for each other. I want a 80’s movie with an outro like this.

Miami Vice didn’t intend it as a swan song, but Palm Haze wound up fitting the bill in more ways than one. Really: with a sound this lonely, coming from a project that wound up floating by itself on the internet, to haunt whoever finds it? This really is vaporwave’s lost sea shell. Fitting, but I have to sigh a bit when it promised so much for his future. Why do the best vaporwave artists have to go poof?

Deep Cuts

Brothertiger feat. Laura Ornella – “Further On” (Future Splendors, 2013)

Phased synth chords like holographic tears, dripping into a river to form some kind of dance. Then, the most gorgeously trembling verses I’ve heard in some time. Many thanks to Laura Ornella for guesting here. Gave you all of my life and you told me we’d never survive / My heart burns heavy tonight / If you hold it up to the light / You will see all of the memories of a million lives. Such a regretful atmosphere, yet such dedication and hope when the chorus hits. When Brothertiger made his name with happy-go-lucky songs like “Lovers”, this reveals a compelling new side to him.

What is it about synth-pop that makes it PERFECT for bittersweet, vulnerable ballads? Ignore the cliche that ‘synths have no feeling’ as usual. To think this is the ‘lesser album’ from a ‘lesser artist’ in a ‘fake’ genre (chillwave)… If that’s true, why did I play this 20+ times in January? More important, how wasn’t this a single?

Anniversary

Toro Y Moi’s ‘Causers Of This’, ten years later

In the early tens, DIY artists like Toro showed me you don’t need endless synth rigs to make creative electronic music, and that the best inspiration can and will come from the solitude of home. He helped kick off a chillwave take-over that inspired many artists to come, whether or not ‘died’ within a year like countless articles claim, but it doesn’t end there. For one thing, Toro came early to the trend of seeking the 80s funk vaults for inspiration and gleaning the weirdness out of them. Without vocals, “You Hid” could pass as vaporwave. I begin to lose count with the motifs Causers Of This mirrored, if not pioneered, and this was the decade’s first month. Hypnagogic pop, future funk, our latest nu-disco crop, lo-fi house, synthwave, Carly Rae, alt R&B’s groovier corners. I won’t say he invented all this, of course, but it’s hard to deny he helped shape the decade’s indie electronic music. As his most hyped, ambitious electronic album, Causers represents these many facets best.

That electro-funk attitude became a staple for Toro, but in this case? Imagine french house doused in the ocean and ascended to space. He achieves this through hypnotic EDM pulses and murky synth ambience. His interest in glitches and grandiose samples distinguish it further, nodding to Brainfeeder shortly before Cosmogramma blew up. It was this taste for surrealism and natural variety that set Toro apart from other chillwavers. He defined a new genre while expanding it’s formula.

Like the best ‘bedroom’ e-music, Causers immerses you in the artist’s musical psyche, taking even a shy persona like Toro’s beyond it’s size. With it’s mutant synth licks making way for a disco fanfare, “Lissoms” suggests he brought an inner clash between earworms to reality, and it makes sense as a song. Each sound manages to blur into this delirious, weirdly calming vortex. Like the ocean itself, it flows along at differing speeds, one element to the next, coming and going. These changes feel instinctual rather than random. I’m not sure I know any other chillwave so in-touch with the ocean. When this is an arguable goal for the whole genre, that’s saying something.

With most songs fading to the next, Causers can sound more like a suite or spontaneous DJ session, making more abstract tracks like “Freak Love” work better in album context. Even so, a finale as joyous and straightforward as “Low Shoulder” shows Toro was already developing an ear for elaborate hooks. The title track loses some punch through it’s odd shape, but each riff has an authentic funk edge too much chillwave lacks.

In this ‘vortex’, Toro’s everyday sentiments will distort however he wants them to, yet staying in excellent sync with the music. Many lyrics resemble scraps from a letter to a friend with the odd metaphor mixed in (’Turn those fans away from me, they only dry my eyes out / Ever since I was born I couldn’t see’). ‘Sorry I couldn’t name the color of your eyes’, he mutters on “Fax Shadow”, proceeding to loop and obscure it as a sample yells ‘BABY!!!’ to the beat. What began a plain, if odd, apology becomes a broken rerun, where that old song he was playing last night got stuck.

As he begins on “Blessa”: ‘Come home in the summer / Live the life that you miss / It’s alright / I’ll fill you in / don’t you wait / for me to call your name again’. This wouldn’t surprise me over an indie rock sound, but the way he drenches it in filters and tops it off with his most angelic falsetto adds a whole new dimension. It’s like a hug from under a swimming pool. Despite his reference to trying hard with a job he doesn’t favor, or feeling reluctant to ‘let you in’, “Blessa” could make a great lullaby. It captures chillwave’s bittersweet nostalgia like few others.

COT is a testament to the potential solo artists can unleash with our growing access to music software. With a single app and enough dedication, you can create a world in your head, even from disparate interests. If you’re lucky, you’ll set the tone for an era. At this point I’m wishing chillwave wasn’t such bait for jokes; maybe then, influential albums like these would get the respect they deserve.

 

Favorite new wave-inspired albums

Errors – New Relics (2012) & Lease of Life (2015)

 

More like this – Laurel Halo, GAMES, Washed Out’s Within And Without

Bored of all the interchangeable synthwave? I’d suggest listening to Errors.  As former ‘post-rockers’, I figure the little hype around these albums is a lack of the right crowd. It’s a shame they didn’t find one, since I know it’s not every day I hear synth-pop this expansive. Their songs deviate from verse-chorus structures, building as they go with relentless, hypnotizing progressions. Even shorter songs like “Putman Caraibe” turn a semi-normal verse into a mini-symphony. Meanwhile, “Pegasus” evolves from 4AD dream pop to Tangerine Dream in six minutes. They have me wishing ‘progressive synth-pop’ was a genre.

Both Relics and Lease use many trademarks like Linndrums and FM bells, but it’s all about how they arrange them. They center on weirder, extra-kitschy tones over the obvious Com Truise gloss. Without reducing their color, Errors find the danger in these sounds and take them to a metaphysical space. Songs like “Relics” and “Ammaboa” wield bubbly arpeggios like a plant’s thorns.

 

The way they process vocals enhance this effect. Most songs fill them with reverb, fading them in until the lyrics only come in shards. “Slow Rotor” and “Dull Care” show this best with guest singer Bek Oliva repeating cryptic, sometimes tragic omens like ‘if nothing I can think about is real’ and ‘I’ll never get to sleep again’. The meanings aren’t clear, but they know how to stick around and keep me guessing. Their singing along with voxes and bells adds a cyborg-like contrast of feeling v.s. unfeeling.

Errors mutated synth-pop into a sinister, strangely beautiful vortex with these albums. They’re another group that show how emotive this music can be no matter how virtual it sounds. I’m hoping they can return soon given how long it’s been since Lease of Life.

5-Song Gateways · Artists you should know

5-Song Gateway: Keep Shelly In Athens

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 11.10.33 PM

This column highlights favorite genres, scenes and artists with the intent to make it quick and easy to get into them or decide if they’re ‘for you’. I’ll focus on obscure and/or prolific projects.

The huge (as I would argue, overblown) taboo surrounding the ‘chillwave’ sound left many talented groups like this forgotten. I’m thinking another reason for Keep Shelly was their silly name, and how their vocals and lyrics get cheesy. Still, I wound up endeared by this factor more than annoyed. This is shimmery water-fairy music at heart, and as long as you aren’t pulling an all-out ‘bananis and avocados’ with your voice, I won’t complain. These ‘fairies’ have soothing voices and fabulous scenery is everywhere, so I can’t help but enjoy the ride. Beyond that, they’re one of the most ambitious groups I’ve heard in this decade’s synth-dream pop genre/scene/thing.

Here’s the thing: KSIA never were your average ‘chillwavers’.  Unlike this scene’s generic corners, Keep Shelly aren’t ones to rehash old ideas. It doesn’t boil down to some woozy synths and pale guitar tones from a nerd writing gushy love songs about his GF. Like Royksopp, they stay adventurous at the same time as having a ‘chill-out’ appeal. They vary a lot from the structures and influences you come to expect from this music. Not every experiment works, but I appreciate their ambition.  Their one constant member RΠЯ decorates and transforms the songs as much as he wants (on lesser songs, maybe too much!). If this is chillwave, it’s a bold and shiny update. He has a great taste for expanding on chillwave’s water fixation, so give these songs a good listen if you fawn over aquatic sounds like I do!

1. “Cremona Memories” – In Love With Dusk, 2010

One running trope I love about KSIA is their taste for spontaneous ‘weirder’ or kitschy touches. This song has a throbbing sci-fi synth one moment (1:21), and a Tina Turner sample or vinyl scratch the next. Results will depend on how wild they are, but I love the way it expands songs like this. RΠЯ relies on a fairly simple groove here but throws everything he has over it to keep you engaged. KSIA don’t get too serious, and make things fun when they see fit.

2. “DIY” – Our Own Dream EP, 2011

Film scores aside, this has one of the most epic piano lines I know. A few chords and that’s it, but they play in such enormous and stomping fashion that it doesn’t matter. And those horns! Another great ‘what if’ move from KSIA.

3. “Flyway” – At Home, 2013

Relies on this one fluttery synth, but adds all these subtle riffs to bounce off of it and a weird yet awesome vocoder cameo. Another one where you have to ride the adrenaline rush. The best kind of repetition: purposeful, not too much, addictive, doesn’t take forever to evolve.

4. “Fractals” – Now I’m Ready, 2015

I don’t know, I have a soft spot for well-done wishy washy bittersweet pop songs. That is, if the right people make them, and of course Keep Shelly qualify. Really pleasant melodies, and the hopeful spirit is sweet. I love the way the chorus busts in with that Robin Guthrie guitar (guth-tar?) from the gentler verses. That little chiptune-y solo toward the end makes it even more satisfying.

5. “Hollow Man” – Now I’m Ready, 2015

This is where their ambition shines. The layers, the intensity, the oceanic textures, the twists, the synth soloing, it’s all there. You have break beats, gorgeous synths, windy vocal effects, huge build VS sad, hushed cooldown; vibraphone [!!!] fade-out… An exciting mixture in the end. Thumps like a thunder storm; when it’s music, that’s a good thing.