hidden treasure · new music

Hello Seahorse! – Disco estimulante, 2020

synth pop / indie electronic / dream pop

More like this – Hello Seahorse!’s Lejos. No tan lejos., Reni Jusis’ “Motyle”, Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry, Rajie’s Espresso

Denise Gutiérrez’s voice makes this band stand out, mixing rich velvet-like lows with powerful falsetto choruses in each song. Their synths come in many colors but the vivid, reflective atmosphere they create is a perfect fit. Synth pop is my closest guess here, but maybe not the kind you expect. This is more of a modern cocktail party in slow-motion with moonlight peeking in from the balcony.

Sadly, synth pop keeps falling victim to cliches these past few years, leading HS to use the same old 808 beats. Beyond that, I think their ears for melody are getting a lot tighter here. This is a great kick-off for the new year’s music if you’re obsessed with synth pop and/or dreamy falsettos like I am.

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.

 

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

Background

Like it’s animation, the new age boom of the 80’s had an odd and not-so-discussed taste for darkness. Let’s consider the common Yamaha synth bells and rhodes, which became THE sound of VHS credit rolls. You hear these in happy love ballads one minute and Twin Peaks the next. It’s a sound melts in your memory over the years as VHS quality melts itself, that can take on a ghostly new life. It’s no shock that lots of new age has this effect, whether light or dark. It’s something about how the comfort and ‘fluff’ mingles with this darkness.

It’s only natural for these themes to mix with nostalgia and give us mixed and/or complex feelings. >These feelings can haunt us the same way that one ‘scary’ scene in your old favorite children’s VHS does for years. Fleeting joy feels crucial here. After all, so much new age regards fragile things: crystals, gifts, nature, loved ones. New age is for cherishing and protecting. I’d think meditation makes way for some vulnerability itself.

Likewise, fantasy is inspiring and unleashes real-world limits. It can represent ideals and romance. So often this romance can lead to wishing. For things to be real, for dreams to come true, to go back in time.

It’s the tenderness in how these songs approach such emotions that gives them their grip. When gentle fantasy music ponders, it’s like a deer lost in a forest or >a child finding haunted halls in their room. >It’s not hard to sympathize.

What makes ‘dark’ new age so odd is how it ‘disobeys’ the genre’s core themes. When we hear ‘new age’, we expect serene sounds fit for a spa. It’s crossover icon Enya has 2-3 songs I could call ‘dark’, after all. If ‘true’ new age is music for happy daydreams, dark new age depicts our questions and fears. Despite this, some songs keep the calming effect.

Of course, I’m not aiming for an edgy substitute here. Besides, we hold up ambient as this intellectual counterpart already. I love lighter new age too; I’m just highlighting a deserving >sub-niche. This strikes me as a relevant theme with new age’s recent spike in popularity. I intend this more to gather lost gems and challenge cliches, ‘soullessness’ to name one.

I chose this Unico shot because, like this music, it paints a sad and uncertain scene with bright colors. You have a unicorn, the trademark ‘pure fantasy’ creature, with a wind fairy, but both are forlorn. While the Unico film has a warm heart, it follows this unicorn getting stolen from his family and losing his memories. It probably represents this theme better than any other movie.

Deep Cuts

Siouxsie And The Banshees – “Sea Of Light” (”Shadowtime” b-side, 1991)

As mush as I adore synths, my #1 band didn’t actually use them much. Superstition was the one Banshees album to use them beyond cameos. Guitars were their clear specialty, but I do wonder where more keyboard would have led them.

This metaphysical b-side is one in few exceptions. Beyond Siouxsie and one quiet guitar, it’s all misty fairy synths. Believe it or not, “Sea Of Light” sounds like new age Banshee-style. An uneasy mood sneaks in even so via Siouxsie’s vocal as she sings of near-death experiences. The effects on her voice resemble a distant call for help or gathering wind. This results in a unique middle ground between peace and danger.

hidden treasure

Alan Hawkshaw & Trevor Bastow – Kinetics/Vision, 1980 (Bruton)

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library music / progressive electronic

More like thisCurios From The Background Vol. 1, Alan Shearer’s “Isis For Osiris”, early Oneohtrix, Geoff Bastow’s Tomorrow’s World

While there’s some issues with consistency and a few too many reprises, this library oddity is definitely worth hearing if you’re interested in eighties analog synth music. I’ve wondered if this was one of the Bruton albums to influence Oneohtrix Point Never as it’s one of their closest in style (OPN referenced their cover art with Drawn And Quartered). Like his early albums, the synths of Kinetics/Vision are cold and warm all at once, forming lots of foggy/metallic arpeggios and a feeling of futuristic isolation.

Side 1 (Kinetics) begins on a cheerful note, with busy and scientific rhythms recalling a tech facility. The first six or seven tracks largely repeat the same melodies, all variations on the same tune. It gets redundant after a certain point, but later highlights like “Kinetic Strength” and “Kinetic Research” add welcome twists to this theme via thrilling slow-burn suspense and a complete mood shift before Bastow’s side ends. Here I picture a protagonist investigating the same facility late at night as they unveil it’s dark secrets.

The renowned Alan Hawkshaw’s B-side adds more variation and a deeper dive into “Kinetic Strength”’s shadowy sci-fi. With the intimidating “Vision 1″, I imagine a dystopian-ish eighties film scenario where they’ve locked up a building after a crime, leaving everyone on edge. “Crystal Vision” is the prettiest moment on the album with the sort of aquatic synth-bell gleam that became popular years beyond 1980. “Visionary” is all weightless and empty hums: non-threatening, but the paranoia lingers. In stark opposition to how the album began, “Dark Vision” ends it all with sinister droning.

If you’re curious to hear more from Bruton Music’s analog synth phase, I highly recommend this 22-minute compilation.

♥︎ – “Kinetic Strength”, “Kinetic Research”, “Crystal Vision”, “Vision 1″, “Visionary”

hidden treasure

Milan Pilar – Digital Structures / Space And Underwater (1990 / 1993)

 

library music / progressive electronic

Listen here

At this point I’m convinced this Czech composer was in a home stretch in the late 80s-early 90s. He could do no wrong.

One of my personal music missions is to hear just about every ‘aquatic’ library album I can manage, as it’s almost always a sign of quality. Therefore, I HAD to listen to Milan Pilar’s take on it. It turns out this album began as Digital Structures for the unusual Coloursound label, with no true song titles – “Digital Structure #3”, “#12”, and so on. This  Selected Sound re-issue has a new title plus a true name for every song. In fact, it turns out I’d heard Digital Structures before, and got fooled into thinking this was different. Library labels are weird like that; something unfamiliar will turn out to be another, older album, even from another label!

Even so, I’m glad that I wound up hearing this one again. I picked up on a lot more great tracks this time. Plus, the re-titling helped me tell them apart. Even though SS branded this with space/water themes, it does veer into other moods/imagery at times, like the twinkling fantasy that was the trademark of his also-quality Nature Study. Knowing the album’s origin, this makes some sense.

I’ve written about similar albums before; O’Hearn’s Indigo, Above and About, etc. so many of those same traits apply here. It’s the same fascinating mix of varied moods and soaring synth textures – pads that wash over like shores, glittering arpeggios, warbles, flutters. He really brings out the best in digital synths. The sci-fi/water theme in particular adds some interesting moodier elements to Pilar’s familiar style. It’s the best direction he could’ve taken from his previous albums, and with every song being a mere 1.5 minutes, very digestible. Through their brief length, the songs flourish and establish their grip right on contact.

I especially recommend this if you love a good 80s synth film score. That tension, build and release of a good synth score is here and pulled off in expert fashion. The quality it retains over 43 tracks means this would be one of my favorite scores had an actual movie used it. But, as library music continues to remind me, it turns out some of the best film music doesn’t even wind up getting used.