Daniel Lopatin is having an artistic moment that defies all labels, a clear sign that he is in the midst of a process of personal growth. It hasn’t even been a year since the label No Fun put together diverse material previously out on limited edition records, tapes, and CD-r, “Rifts”, on a double compact disc. We already had trouble situating Oneohtrix Point Never in one of the current stylistic niches, but there was a more or less tacit consensus that located it in the diffuse category of hauntology –conjuring up auditory ghosts of a lost past to relocate them in a nostalgic context, closer to dreaming than to revival. This word seems to have already disappeared entirely from the dictionary of musical criticism, giving way to the similarly imprecise and conflict-laden term “hypnagogy,” which is the same, though it reinforces the pop element pop of the artist, not exemplary of experimental inclinations. But there is no trace of pop in OPN –nor is there in Emeralds, or in Tim Hecker.The “glo-fi” label doesn’t suit it either, because although the sound does seem to shine with the paleness and purity of a distant star, you can’t find the low fidelity anywhere: the equipment used is Akai AX-60, Roland Juno-60, Roland MSQ-700, Korg Electribe ES-1, voice, personal computer. The first big merit of “Returnal” is that of dodging any type of classification. And no, what he does isn’t drone either.
Of course, the floating approximation of ambiental music subsists, the mark of the first new age music understood in the German manner –and we bring up the German nuance because there are still people who identify new age with the music of gentle streams, sitars notes prolonged for an hour to accompany yoga sessions (always with a pejorative intention), and this is not the same thing: there was an evolution of kosmische music born of Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching taken up by Software and Robert Schroeder, of delicate arpeggios inducing a musing, also called new age in the beginning, which is where Oneohtrix Point Never starts from. But although the trace is still there, it is weakening, because Lopatin is getting closer and closer to an empty area that belongs only to him. He is an artist isolated in time and space, whom the moment –the space boom that has been developing for the last half a decade– has attracted to the forefront. And “Returnal” comes to light at just the right time: in tune with the zeitgeist, at same time so opposed to the kosmische revivalist scene.
The main ingredients of OPN’s recipe are still there: pastoral ambients that call to mind lost childhoods like “In a Beautiful Place out in the Country” by Boards Of Canada, small-format synthesisers with the primitive texture of the 70s, fomenting the feeling of infinite space and unmoving time (limbo), lucid suggestion and hypnosis based on ingenious arpeggio cycles. What has changed is his capacity for concentration, possibly, and his trust in his creative abilities. It’s not enough to be special, you have to believe it and act like it. And “Returnal”, whose title might refer to a conscious return to the sources of his sound, sounds like a piece worked on deliberately, planned in its narrative development, and polished of any extra harshness. “Returnal” is pure, almost always angelical, and at times tense, like in the opening of “Nil Admirari”, which is like an homage to the classic digital noise of the Mego label, a chaos of unstable computer music like Hecker (Florian, not Tim), Russell Haswell and Pita, which throws you in the beginning, until you hear an agonising, terrible voice that could be a man falling into a black hole.
But this enervating introduction has its reason for being: it is like a passage from pain to peace, starting in front of your face without warning, and right then Oneohtrix Point Never starts to work its magical, irregular sound geometry. “Describing Bodies” is almost aquatic ambient, like the surface of a calm lake, weightless music that turns in gentle cycles without resting, but with a perfect calm, a real contrast–noise vs. peace– in which “Returnal” marks its two poles right away. Then it enters into its phase of arpeggios and melodic loops, ambiental dreaming, the evoking of a lost memory –Proust meets Ash Ra Tempel, basically– that at times appears Zen (“Where Does Time Go” or “Stress Waves”, and at the end of the latter there are bird effects). It constantly leaves the hub, though, dislocating itself with slightly noisy effects and imprecision in the entry of the expected notes, as on “Returnal”, where the voices of divine entity flutter over ambiental layers based on corrupt audio that sounds poorly filtered, with a dirty wavelength.
The album is a total experience: you can listen to it in the background, like a decorative abstraction or a sensory illusion –a perfect ambient album, in this sense– or it can be listened to actively, passing intensely through all kinds of moods. The first few times listening to it, the only thing that seemed imprecise was the end, especially after two homages to Boards Of Canada as clear as “Pelham Island Road” –a shot of a memory of a forgotten summer recovered from childhood– and the ethereal “Ouroboros”. “Preyouandia,” is anticlimactic and doesn’t have the solidity of a real tour de force –whether in the form of emptiness or epic. But until you perceive how different it is from the rest of the album, slightly disconcerting like dirty water, you cannot discover his intention of closing a phase falsely and ambiguously so that he can begin to work in a more disturbing line where a sweet dream and a nightmare run together. If he tries it and achieves it, Lopatin will certify everything that has been said here, that in current horizontal electronic, he is ahead of the rest.
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