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 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 Glass” wield glittering 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 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 haunt me. Their singing along with voxes and bells adds a cyborg-like contrast of feeling v.s. unfeeling.

Errors turned synth-pop into a sinister, strangely beautiful vortex with these albums. They’re another group that show how emotive synth-pop can be, no matter how virtual it sounds. I hope they have something new on the way.

First impressions

Teebs – Anicca (2019)

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downtempo / indie electronic / folktronica / wonky

If you missed my first Teebs post, know I became a huge fan last year. Think back to FlyLo’s gentlest moments but more earthy. You’re dozing in a surrealist painter’s garden, filled with chimes and bird houses, where the difference between his world and the real world is fading. Sound good? Read on and recap yourself with my Teebs playlist while you’re at it.

Imagine my thrill when I hear he’s back from a five-year silence. How much changed since then? I’ll say a ‘moderate’ amount. Anicca settles between warm acoustic sounds, chill-out music and toned-down wonky elements. The calmer sound will let ‘glitch hop’ fans down, but it’s a natural change given his eyes for painting. As usual with Teebs, looking for Banging Beats misses the point.

I welcome this evolution, but Anicca tends to give guitar too much focus, ending in a paler sound. Beyond a few straight-up flashbacks, I want more of those chimes and synths; more variety. His sound is distinct and beautiful like before, but it’s lost some vital color. I began to miss the signature fuzz and grain as well thanks to the clearer production.

Anicca has many great highlights that show his ideas are still varied. “Studie” lets his cloudy synth chords shine, ending in the audio equal to an afternoon nap. “Universe” is similar, using DayDream Masi’s front-and-center guest vocal like a harmonious beam of sunlight. He graces “Marcel” with gorgeous bells and flute that would fit right into his last album. In a welcome surprise, “Mirror Memory” gets me thinking about FlyLo with it’s spaced-out violin; it sounds like old Teebs meeting new Teebs. He gives the Sudan Archives feature “Black Dove” a similar vibe. Given their unique styles and mutual skills for fusing spiritual and organic sounds, I’d love to hear a full EP by these two.

The crucial thing is how Anicca is still that breezy flower-field music at heart. Teebs continues to soothe like few others in e-music and I applaud his will to stick to his own path. I worry for his palette but I can savor Anicca for what it is and it’s great to have him back.

♥︎ – “Studie”, “Black Dove”, “Prayers i”, “Mirror Memory”, “Threads”, “Universe”, “Daughter Callin”, “Marcel”

 

My music

New song “Voltage” available for listen and download on the new Vulpiano compilation!

The Vulpiano Records 10-Year Anniversary album came out yesterday, which means you can stream and/or download my new song “Voltage”! Check it out if you liked Spires. I was aiming for a similar futuristic/metallic sound with this one but with a bit of trance music thrown in. Polishing it for this release was a daunting task that ended in overly-soft volume, but I’m happy with the composition. I’ll add it to my own Bandcamp and Soundcloud in the next few days.

5-Song Gateways · Artists you should know

5-Song Gateway: Keep Shelly In Athens

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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.

Mix

Castles In The Sky (I Heart Noise Guest Mix)

ORIG BRIGHT

IHN Mixcloud + 8Tracks + Youtube

My guest mix for I Heart Noise highlights the surprising darker and sadder corners of new age music. Despite common aims to soothe and uplift, these songs dive into downbeat and/or ambiguous feelings: vulnerable, longing, bittersweet, haunting. The bright synths of a meditation cassette meet the murky lows and fragile heart of your favorite oddly-sinister children’s VHS.

Made from selections off my eponymous Rateyourmusic list: plenty more in this vein over there!

Track listing

  1. Suzanne Ciani – The Eighth Wave
  2. Hiroshi Yoshimura – Singing Stream (Spring Mix)
  3. Bob Foster – The Water Garden
  4. Hiroyuki Onogawa – August In The Water 1
  5. Michel Genest – Reflections On A Moonlit Stream
  6. Medwyn Goodall – Dolphin Dreams
  7. Spencer Nilsen – Title Theme
  8. Peter Seiler – Reef Moods
  9. Milan Pilar – Way To The South
  10. Simon Benson & Mike Tauben – Dreamworld
  11. Graham De Wilde – Underwater World (a)
  12. Milan Pilar – Nocturne
  13. Sumio Shiratori – Winter In Moominvalley
  14. Toshifumi Hirata – Fire And Forever
  15. Joe Hisaishi – The Huge Tree In The Tsukamori Forest [8Tracks & Mixcloud] / The Path of the Wind (Instrumental) [Youtube]
  16. Warren Bennett – A Time To Remember
  17. Bel Canto – Unicorn
  18. Spencer Nilsen – Skylands
  19. Happy Rhodes – Ra Is A Busy God
  20. Miami Vice – Tokyo Negative
  21. Delicate Features – Taurus Moon
  22. Mychael Danna – Sky 2
  23. Áine Minogue – The Grove
  24. John Hall – Illusen’s Glade [Youtube Only]
  25. Emerald Web – The Red Vapour of Still Lakes
  26. Kirsty Hawkshaw – Modern Mermaid
  27. Milan Pilar – Green Velvet
  28. David Rogers & Paul Shaw – Ice Kingdom [8Tracks Only]
  29. Emerald Web – Soft Silence The City
  30. Patrick O’Hearn – España

 

Songs that got me into music

Glass Candy – “Computer Love” (Cover of Kraftwerk)

Few albums show me the range of colors and emotions in a synth like Glass Candy’s B/E/A/T/B/O/X. Johnny Jewel seems to pry out the richest analog tones possible here. It’s a masterful dance album that fills each corner with glitter, but never without melody or feeling. If you wonder why I got so obsessed with synths, look no further than here (and The Knife, but that’s another story).

“Computer Love” demonstrates with a heaven-sent take on my favorite Kraftwerk classic. You’d think seven minutes would wear it out. Instead, Johnny makes decadent variations on their melodies over and over, finding new sweet spots in the harmony. I could listen to that same echoing synth for much longer; it’s like a magnet. The almost operatic fluttering later on takes it to a whole new place.  B/E/A/T/B/O/X is a decadent album already, but “Computer Love” is a true journey. When I listen, I’ve entered some haven of digitized bubbles and flowers.

With this fountain of synths backing her, Ida No could douse her face in it. She gives that falsetto title-drop the pure frozen longing it needed. Critics labelled her goofy and ‘detached’, but songs like this show a warmer, gentler side to her that’s just as prominent. She has a barbie-doll glamor that makes a closer fit for a song like this. Ralf Hutter has his charms, but he’s not a big love-song type.

Something about this cover takes the loneliness further. With how they sequenced B/E/A/T/B/O/X, “Computer Love” provides a refuge in the face of paranoia (see “Candy Castle” and “Digital Versicolor”). The way I hear it, this version doesn’t wish for love alone, but for relief in general. It searches the ends of Earth, science, and fantasy for this.

new music

Maria Usbeck – Envejeciendo, 2019

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synth pop / art pop

Using more synths this time, Maria Usbeck’s second album emulates a digitized canopy. It’s another one where cold synths prompt human feeling despite their origins. Skeptics will claim they lack feeling but Maria’s music hasn’t lost any of that.

Which brings me to what stuck from Amparo: her incredible talent for calming the listener. Her travels in Ecuador to reconnect with her past continue to influence the effect of her songs. Like home, or what feels like it, Maria’s music relaxes with it’s everyday air. As she composed by herself, everything sounds filtered through her perspective. That is, besides the odd speech from Siri (!) or her grandmother. Envejeciendo is a traveling laptop’s creation.

What struck me about her ‘chill-out’ effect is that it feels so grounded. It doesn’t assume everything is or will be perfect. She doesn’t aim for escapism, as much as that works for other music. Instead, she uses this space to ask questions. Yet she does this without getting bleak; some songs veer on humorous. She seems to find comfort in more realistic conditions. Her lyrics concern aging (the album’s English name) and how new tech changes our thinking. I’m glad to see her explore these themes when few others do and when the cult of youth stays strong.

Envejeciendo peaks at the end with “Retirement Home” and “Nostalgia”. With the album’s richest synths and her own tender voice, they form a compelling mix of cathartic and relaxed tones. “Retirement Home” imagines ideal senior living, with metallic synth-bells adding a spa-like hypnosis. “Nostalgia” matches the title in seconds with breezy synth chords glowing like fireflies. As intended, it’s perfect for those fleeting daydreams of the past.

The drum machine beats are my main gripe as with too many recent albums. And I say this as a synth-pop fanatic! The issue is, no matter how classic the 909 is, the novelty wears after decade-long overuse.

I prefer Amparo but this is a worthy album with it’s own great ideas. It’s very digestible at 27 minutes. Maria’s solo career keeps taking refreshing turns and deserving a closer look.