The return of many electronic musicians to the synthesiser as their main tool in the recording studio is basically explained by a single factor: the urgent need to touch, to put their hands on something that isn’t only the curved surface of a mouse. The previous decade, which was the golden age of digital editing and production processes, ended up leading to a colossal overdose on software, all eyes glues to the computer screen, and a feeling of unreality—because of how intangible and liquid the music was—that has finally led many musicians back to analogue terrain (when they haven’t gone so far back as to making music with conventional acoustic instruments). Where before there was blind faith in production with Logic or Ableton Live, touch-ups with plug-ins and final mastering with ProTools, it’s now preferable to tune your instruments by ear and improvise on keyboards and panels with dials and buttons.
The synthesiser has a romantic air that no software could ever emulate. In his tour around theatres presenting the live performance of his album “Oxygène”, Jean Michel Jarre presented the experience as a return to the purity of the synthesiser and the type of electronic music “you can feel with your fingertips.” He spoke of the old ARP’s, Moogs and Korgs that appeared on the stage as the electronic equivalent of the Stradivarius that so many violinists and museums consider treasures of incalculable value. Jarre caressed them like pets or precious jewels, and he took care of them because he insisted that they were “fragile devices that needed their time to start to work.” At some moments during the live show, a synthesiser played out of key and he had to get the right tonality back with a short reaction time, by pure instinct, without stopping the music. In comparison with software, where one composes as if putting together a puzzle, without a time limit and with the option of doing, redoing, adding, and correcting whatever you want, the classic synthesiser offers the possibility of returning to the past, to forgotten textures, and working with a higher level of difficulty. At a time when the object is becoming diluted, and disappearing—technology is more miniature; books, films and albums are beginning to exist as files on the Internet where there is no paper, no theatre and no plastic, just binary code—the cosmic revival has been the most solid protest against a world in transformation and a desperate attempt to halt time.
A close relative to the hypnagogic pop that was spoken of here a couple of days ago, the new kosmische sound has something of Proust to it, in search of the past—of going after lost time—and recovering it in a state between sleep and wakefulness in which one doesn’t distinguish between reality and illusion. It’s not exactly a revival of the floating German music of the 70s, or the old progressive rock, nor is it a defence of the new-age music of the early 80s, but rather a partial recreation of the sound, or the mysticism, of those scenes that many of the neo-cosmic folks knew of tangentially when they were children. Like what happens with the hypnagogic pop of Rangers, James Ferraro or Julian Lynch, youth runs in the veins of a scene that has reclaimed the synthesiser, the sequencer and other ancient machines, once again on the second-hand market after the boom of guitar garage-rock of 2001 and the empire of digital tools which has dismantled so many professional studios—and which have begun to be used in a way that is, for the moment, more instinctive than virtuoso.
At the end of last year, one began to sense a return to the modular synthesiser at the heart of underground electronic music (the experimental section, lacking any desire to enter into contact with the dance floor circuit). Then, it was called hauntology: it had two main currents, one close to library music and 60s radio studio effects as for The Focus Group or Moon Wiring Club; and the other, more ambiental, darker, and partly hailing from the drone scene, like Emeralds, Mordant Music and The Caretaker / Leyland Kirby. This is the seed that has grown into the current synth-improv circuit, like the chill-wave of Memory Tapes and Neon Indian has grown into the hypnagogic pop of How To Dress Well. In reality, all of these neighbouring micro-scenes, occasionally connected without friction (there is also space for witch-house) and brought together in an underground that has found itself new uses for technology with an obvious escapist connotation. It would not be risky to declare that all of these are types of music that come from the current state of confusion—in terms of moral values and financial uncertainty—of Western society. In them, one can make out a discontent with the recent past, a return to times of greater moral certainty, to a time when technology had mysticism and the speed of changes wasn’t as anxiety-provoking as it is now, by a long shot.
If this is the desire, the decade stretching from 1974 to 1984 is an ideal moment for a return to the past in which the world was beginning to believe in the future as a sure possibility and not as a romantic hope for the gold age of science fiction. In those years, the future as it had been dreamed of was materialising before people’s eyes: colour television was coming into people’s homes, the personal computer was being born, the video player was becoming an indispensable appliance, along with the camera, there were improvements in cars, trains were faster, images were arriving from space thanks to artificial satellites, spaceships were leaving our atmosphere, Concorde crossed the Atlantic in record time. The same way that one day the generation born during these years will experience a damp-eyed envy of the “slowness” and “romantic air” of the current phase of Internet, the iPod, biogenetics, and the conquering of Mars, today’s cosmic battalion is obsessed with those ingenuous 80s, filtered through the fuzzy memories of childhood.
The reclaiming no longer consists solely of taking krautrock as the point of departure, but rather of considering the early years and the most prestigious groups, the ones that rock has already accepted into its canon –Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk– to be surpassed, and to set their sights on the virtuosos of the synthesiser and pioneers of ambient. In one interview, Daniel Lopatin (alias Oneohtrix Point Never) explained that he went through a period during his adolescence when, after coming home from a night out, drunk on beer and who knows what else, he and his friends could think of no better way to end the evening than by listening to Klaus Schulze’s albums. There, in pieces like “Floating” –the thirty minutes that take up the A-side of “Moondawn”–many traits that make up the cosmic scene are summarised: there is the adoration of the synthesiser, the majestic object, the totem, but also the aesthetic of music that is drifting, led rhythmically by its own wave of textures, curled into eternal loops of notes. One can also find the same feeling of floating as in the old albums of Harmonia or Tangerine Dream –and not only the TD of “Risky Business”, always mentioned as the fetish album for modern cosmic disco producers, but also the mid-70s TD, from “Phaedra” to “Tangram”– and it is this immobile ecstasy that the neo-kosmische revels in. At times, it takes on a more poppy, summery incarnation, like in Solar Bears, S U R V I V E, Com Truise or Tropics, but the solid core of the scene in 2010 has taken the forgotten players of the second German cosmic wave hostage, starting with Ash Ra Tempel and carrying on to Robert Schröder and Software
The main criticisms of all of these young folks who are into the analogue synthesiser tend to run in the same direction: many of them are mere revivalists of a past that was sleepy and almost forgotten. And one must not underestimate this reproach: listening to the Ohio trio Emeralds, and especially the solo projects of its keyboard player, John Elliott, one understands this scepticism—even more when you see that in their wake, and in light of the media hubbub that they have generated on the underground, labels like Important have decided to dig up and re-release “forgotten classics” like the“Wizards” of French musician J.D. Emmanuel, which brings together all of the characteristics that have made the “new age” a ridiculed cliché: references to magic, esotericism, spaceships and Oriental philosophy.
New age is a concept that has to be handled with care when you are talking about the neo-cosmic scene, because it didn’t mean the same thing at the beginning of the 80s that it does today—in other words: the distance that separates ingenuous, futuristic music with references to the space race and the firm belief in the moral progress of the human species from the more dispensable music for relaxation, yoga, and the study of inner balance. This ingenuousness, now in a sort of retro-futuristic plane, is what Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never, Stellar Om Source, Dylan Ettinger and Rene Hell share. There is also a galactic patina and the effect of a mind-body separation like a sort of weightless drifting, but this is sceptical music that corresponds to these times of transformation: there is no spiritual message or promise of life in the hereafter. Their escapism is towards childhood—the foetal state, the safety of a bubble isolated from the outside world, a gaze towards the future with the eyes of a child—this is where the constant reference to Boards Of Canada comes from, a point of reference without which this music cannot be understood—and not towards the inner self or universal consciousness.
Mainly distributed in cassette format or on vinyl, the neo-cosmic sound is hard to consolidate into a circuit that isn’t inbred. To do that, one must lean towards pop, and then you run into the hypnagogia scene –Gary War, Ferraro, Ducktails– which are a language apart. The ones who have achieved importance are the ones that have infiltrated the establishment of experimental music—here the signing of Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds by Editions Mego has been decisive—and those who don’t manage to make their own way will have to remain in the catacombs. In reality, there is no better place for the new kosmische sound. To advance towards the mainstream would mean turning into progressive rock (one question: is a revival of Genesis really necessary?), although this is the case of Games (Daniel Lopatin and Joel Ford) when the cult of the synthesiser drags them towards Italo disco, Jan Hammer, Peter Baumann and other examples of 80s kitsch—a fuzzy area where other folks on the same label, such as D’Eon and Laurel Halo (that intriguing Kate Bush for expansive, ambiental times), are also searching for a place. So for now, then, the labels that handle the majority of the scene are those that feel comfortable putting out limited editions on vinyl, cassettes, and the occasional CD, such as Type, Digitalis, Olde English Spelling Bee, Aguirre, Ruralfaune, Arbor and Not Not Fun. These quarries have given opportunities (or re-releases with a better chance of dissemination) to projects like Ossining, Radio People, Brother Raven, Pale Blue Sky and Stellar Om Source, the real (and also loveable) sound astronauts of our days. The existence of a dark side to this scene—as there is dark material in the universe—with Rene Hell and Exp 70 at its head, is the guarantee that staring at your own navel, starting from now, will be strictly prohibited.
Next page: 10 Trips through Outer Space
10 Trips through Outer Space
Ten key albums in the kosmische boom of the year 2010. Ten bubbles of isolation in which the aesthetic power and tactile attractiveness of the synthesiser are being once again appreciated. Ten barricades armed to contain the flood of digital data and the unstoppable increase in the speed of events.
1. Brother Raven: “Diving Into The Pineapple Portal” (Aguirre)
Jason E. Anderson and Jamie Potter have put together two albums this year, both on vinyl and under the radar of the usual music media, even the more indie media. This duo from Seattle seems not to want to follow in the footsteps of Emeralds and tame its blazing analogue electronic music with accessible melodies or guitar phases. In “Diving into the Pineapple Portal”,the continuation of “VSS-30” (Digitalis) that even comes with a cassette with almost another hour of material, Brother Raven shore up and perfect a cosmic aesthetic that is in any case less stand-offish than usual, leaving behind the absolute zero degrees Kelvin to become the ember of a dwarf star.
2. Dolphins Into The Future: “The Music Of Belief” (Release The Bats)
Nobody fits the “new wave of the new age” label better than Lieven Martens, the Belgian musician who spends his time recording the sounds of dolphins and other cetaceans and placing them strategically at the heart of a sound that is ambiental to crystalline extremes and which, in theory, seems like a joke being played on many field recording artists who take their profession of putting microphones in different places more seriously than they should (but in reality it isn’t a joke, of course). If it weren’t for the strange plays on the modulation of frequencies practiced by Dolphins Into The Future, smudging the ambiental mantra once in a while, one would say that this music is strictly music for relaxation. Fortunately, it does have a reason, even though it is playing with fire: between this and “whale music” there is only a millimetre of difference.
3. Dylan Ettinger: “New Age Outlaws” (Not Not Fun)
If you ask rock people what they think of Tangerine Dream, they usually answer that they like the first album, “Electronic Meditation” (which is the least “electronic” of all). But if you ask Dylan Ettinger the same question, he might answer “Zeit” o r“Phaedra”, and if you aren’t careful, he might even say “Rubycon”. This record, the version of a very limited-edition cassette with new mastering, brings together all of the sound features of the old floating German music, but with phases of tribal psychedelics that hide the debauchery of undulating synthesisers that dominates on the LP from beginning to end. Also prize-winning for such an explicit title.
4. Emeralds: “Does It Look Like I’m Here?” (Editions Mego)
The Emeralds trio has had a hyperactive year, with each of its members taking the liberty of publishing as much solo material as possible, but this is the album where they all stay under control and avoid the excesses that lead Mark McGuire to border on noise-rock with his guitar and John Elliott to lose himself in retro cosmic escapades. In “Does It Look Like I’m Here?” they decrease the weight of the drone structures of previous albums and give way to lighter textures, fleeting melodies, and phases of guitar picking that are very similar to those of Manuel Göttsching. As a whole, it is a work that reactivates floating music, convinced that the past is cool, but which opens the door to interesting, less hermetic dynamics.
Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here?
5. Expo 70: “Where Does Your Mind Go?” (Immune)
Justin Wright and Matt Hill have created a tour de force of colossal dimensions, as vast as the galaxy—dark and turbulent—in the pieces of “Where Does Your Mind Go?” And check out the details: double vinyl, four songs (one cut per side) and a total of 70 minutes of analogue improvisation with an absolute pre-eminence of synthesisers and effect pedals that transform the sound of basses and guitars into something like noise anti-material. Essentially, Expo 70 sounds like proto-Emeralds: they start with the simple structure of the drone and little by little adorn it with all sorts of acoustic contamination and bursts of space that also owe a great deal to the turbulent improvisation of bands like Black Dice. The harder side of the neo-kosmische sound, the Dark Side of the Force.
Expo 70 - Close Your Eyes And Effortlessly Drift Away
6. Innercity: “Visions From Dream State” (Ruralfaune Synth Series)
The albums of Hans Dens, a Belgian based in Antwerp and close to Dolphins Into The Future, are the kind that disappear two minutes after they hit the shleves. Whether on vinyl (“Future Life”), cassette or CD-R, he doesn’t make many copies of his works, and they slip away quickly. Seventy copies were made of “Visions from Dream State” on CD, with which Dens guaranteed that his contribution to Ruralfaune’s Synth Series (in which there are also contributions by Oneohtrix Point Never) would never be a best-seller, but it did acquire a cult air in kosmische circles. There we find dystopian, futuristic passages very much in tune with what Dylan Ettinger offers. Worthy of being released again.
7. Oneohtrix Point Never: “Returnal” (Editions Mego)
After the impact at the end of 2009 of “Rifts”, that compilation of enigmatic LPs and cassettes scattered here and there, Daniel Lopatin was nominated the main man of this entire neo-synth scene. This was also logical: he always opts for short pieces, the influences of ambient and Boards Of Canada give his language a great deal of proximity, and the theoretical discourse is also very solid. But beyond this, “Returnal” is a masterpiece that escapes even this kosmische scene, which still isn’t prepared for experiments as profound as this: fractal melodies, different layers of depth, the sensation of a foetal bubble, minutes of noise, angelical voices. A majestic sensory explosion.
Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal
8. Rene Hell: “Porcelain Opera” (Type)
Jeff Witscher is a hyperactive agent of the underground. If we counted up all of his cassettes, we would have enough hours of music to accompany various sessions of sleep. After having taken his first steps on the home-release circuit, he signed with Type to release this album, which marked a significant change in the handling of old modular synthesisers. Far from the cult of Klaus Schulze, Emeralds and OPN, Rene Hell takes the sequences to a colder, more angular sound territory, close to the cosmic development set out by Coil from the industrial scene in the early 80s (or in even more retro moments, a diffuse space between the early Tangerine Dream and Cabaret Voltaire).
9. Solar Bears: “She Was Coloured In” (Planet Mu)
Solar Bears are not intergalactic explorers (or not full-time, anyway): they are more interested in nature, and this “She Was Coloured In” sounds spacey, but like open space in the country, in Spring. Like the good Irishmen that they are, SB tint their pieces green and take them to a melodic territory, somewhere between the Balearic sound and the decisive influence of Boards Of Canada. Why are they on this list, then? Because in this wave of the reclaiming progressive 70s figures, Solar Bears implies the reactivation of the Canterbury continuum, with simultaneous references to astral folk, Mike Oldfield’s symphonies, and ambient as gentle as a stream flowing along its course.
10. Stellar Om Source: “Trilogy Select” (Olde English Spelling Bee)
Christelle Gualdi belongs to the same school as Daniel Lopatin. In fact, they have crossed paths more than once, collaborating sporadically, and they share a similar philosophy of work. For example, the CD-R format seems useful and necessary to both of them, and between 2005 and 2009 Gualdi, under the alias Stellar Om Source, released three albums of which there’s no longer any physical trace. “Trilogy Select” brings together some of the cuts from “Ocean Woman”, “Alliance” and “Crusader”, separating the wheat from the chaff, and placing the author in the main hub of the New York synth micro-scene. Between psychedelics and the cosmic wave, and with a promising future ahead.
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