Today I’m taking shelter in my apartment while a certain Christian music festival rears its ugly head across the street. Fanny-packed crowds flood the streets below while devotional rock blasts through the windows. I shut the shades and find my Rifts box set, selecting the third and possibly gentlest Oneohtrix Point Never album, Russian Mind. Once the turntable is spinning, I nudge the volume a few times until I hear nothing but the gorgeous introductory drone and feel myself wash away. I’m reading VALIS, the final work by science fiction visionary and personal favorite, Philip K. Dick. It’s dense, wild, bursting with ideas in every direction at once. It’s also painfully close to my inner workings at times – a strange proposition when the book is about insanity, living information, and puzzling out the coded machinations of the universe.
Hit play now, so you can follow along:
I slide back into the book I’ve nearly completed. The wandering cadence of this story feels like the most familiar dream. When a sudden gap allows the fist pumping dogma to pierce my room from outdoors, I jump to get side B rolling as quickly as possible. The title track begins, and my eyes fall on this passage:
To my surprise I realized that I had stopped shaking.
It was as if I had been shaking all my life, from a chronic undercurrent of fear. Shaking, running, getting into trouble, losing the people I loved. Like a cartoon character instead of a person, I realized. A corny animation from the early Thirties. In back of all I had ever done the fear had forced me on. Now the fear had died, soothed away by the news I had heard. The news, I realized suddenly, that I had waited from the beginning to hear; created, in a sense, to be present when the news came, and for no other reason.
I could forget the dead girl. The universe itself, on its macro-cosmic level, could now cease to grieve. The wound had healed.
Not many people know me that well, but those who do will know why this hits me so hard. Especially when paired with what I was hearing.
Coming in after a song called “Grief and Repetition,” Russian Mind works a swift attack. Rejecting the overlapping, clipped dull tones of its predecessor, the song bursts forth in a warm arpeggio, taking flight above grey clouds on a stormy day, pulling right on into space. It’s simple, direct, working on a primal level; there’s nothing subliminal about the way it sets progressive thought blooming. It is, in a sense, a kernel of understanding my love for sci-fi evoking synth music. I grew up when science fiction was, if not optimistic, always framed with boundless possibility. There was fear, but not of the unknown. The fear was about our past, our old, dumb ideas still haunting us. The unknown was the future, and whatever it held was not going to hold us back. This music opens a back door, plugging me into that childhood feeling of endless curiosity and hope for what was yet to come.
I feel confident hazarding a guess that Dan Lopatin (the artist’s real name; coincidentally the son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union) was raised on similar fiction with a similar affection for the galaxy of sounds made possible via synthesizer. The more I read on, while the album neared its conclusion, the more apparent it became to me: this notion that VALIS, and the philosophy of Philip K. Dick in general, might be the author’s ultimate work. Not only that, but it may be one of the few books I’ve read that stabs toward the fundamental abyss I find myself gawking at so often. Not only that, but, given the book’s themes and plot (I won’t spoil anything), Lopatin’s work likely acknowledges both Dick and this novel in particular.
I’ll end with this tidbit, gleaned from the Wikipedia article on the name of the final track on this album:
Immanence refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence in which the divine is seen to be manifested in or encompassing the material world.
Please, read some of Dick’s work. It’s worth all of our time.
Special thanks to my friend, collected unkept, for lending me VALIS.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on Optimistic Underground, and as with every prior hiatus I now feel the need to hammer out some mea culpa before jumping into the music. Today I’m skipping that nonsense. Here’s one of the greatest pieces of electronic dance music I’ve ever heard, a landmark from almost two decades ago that I only discovered this year.
Since “better late than never” is mostly true, I’m sharing this new found treasure with everyone. This is god-tier techno, from a Detroit legend you’ve probably heard of. Carl Craig is considered one of the great masters of techno, for reasons that become obvious within minutes of getting familiar. His 1997 masterpiece solo album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art was an instant all-time top 10 favorite the moment I heard it this past winter. The album peaks at the moment At Les begins pouring from its beating heart.
With an insistent, warm muted synth beat frittering on the wind, martial percussion building from a whisper, and a gathering storm of wordless vocal pads, this tune rolls imperceptibly deep at first. It gives me dystopian fantasy chills, some combination of black neon dance floor and crystal space cavern conjured in my head. The driving rhythm belies an ambient drift to the dynamics; by song’s end you’ve gone through the clouds and back, but At Les disappears without so much as an echo of where it went.
The album itself, pictured above, is a true blue masterwork, and one of the best albums of the 1990’s as far as I’m concerned. Several other tracks, including Red Lights and Televised Green Smoke, are in the same realm as this song, if not quite as iconic. Even if you’re a fan of Craig’s, you may have missed this opportunity (something about his myriad personas and hundreds of remix releases) and deserve to be as wowed as I am.
When I purchased the 2lp edition of Destroyer‘s 2011 pop masterpiece Kaputt, I had no idea that the bonus track promised on side C would slowly become the languid circulatory system of the entire album. It swims in an embryonic well from which the other tracks drink, all held breath and deep plunge. It’s patient and fragile, and just may comprise twenty of my favorite minutes.
If you have only heard the standard tracklisting, press play now. It’s rare when something labelled “bonus” actually elevates the experience of listening to a great album. The Laziest River feels absolutely essential at this point, and while I sympathize with the probable intention of encouraging vinyl purchases, it seems unfair to leave everyone else with an unfinished story. So buy it if you can, but this song can be downloaded and amended to your playlist for a quick fix.
This will loop indefinitely over the Elysian fields of an afterlife of my design.
Actress (aka Darren Cunningham) redefined ambient beauty with this piece, lighting the spiritual wires from the organ works of Camille Saint-Saëns through Brian Eno’s Discreet Music while sparking fresh air to flame. Blooming the color of Arvo Pärt’s devotional tilt in an exploratory space odyssey from the dreams of Oneohtrix Point Never or Stanley Kubrick, N.E.W. is uplifting and warm, alien and awestruck. We’re inside a nebulous pipe organ riding the cusp of a singularity, dancing on the membrane between ascension and obliteration. Let it repeat.
I should mention the video: I have no clue where the footage is from, but it strangely works. This copy was chosen mainly, however, because it can be set to 720p, so the sound quality is superb.
I can’t stop this ringing in my head.
With new album Luxury Problems, Andy Stott effectively rendered his pair of groundbreaking 2011 EPs irrelevant. It takes all of ten seconds for this, the opening track, to signify a giant leap. Siren vocal shards and clouds, singing-bowl ring and a Mariana trench of low-end crunch writhe like a basket of snakes, twisting through every crack in every direction.
Hit play, make sure the quality is “HD” and turn this up louder than is normally comfortable. With any luck, it’ll start snowing.
It’s strange to think of the handful of album covers in 2012 featuring high contrast b&w photography of women as all representing their respective sounds in spectacular fashion. This one is my favorite.
This video. This massive tune.
I don’t really have anything to say about this today. Just…
Edit: Ok, I will at least mention that this is one of my favorite moments from one of the best albums of 2012. I will also note that this video is fucking brilliant. You’re welcome.
In preparation for last week’s Flying Lotus show, a friend and I were having a youtube-off. Exhausting the major albums and creeping toward the dusty corners of his recorded output, we were constantly surprised at b-sides, remixes and otherwise lost tracks which only one of us (a pair of somewhat huge fans) was aware of. There’s a sublime comfort in peeling up the tiles of artists we know and love, only to find worthy treasure below. I’m trying to replicate that experience with those who will be completely on the same page when I share a given artist.
This is an older piece from a split tape with Caboladies, one which I’d heard years ago when first discovering Oneohtrix Point Never yet never fully appreciated until this autumn. The gelid synth oscillations build toward softly hissing dunes; the song itself imagines low level flight over this alien landscape. It’s a dream of a half remembered childhood science fiction story. Although that description could be shoehorned onto nearly anything OPN has created, it’s especially pointed in this case. I could drift off with this on repeat for hours.
If there’s one piece of advice I can offer those on the perpetual quest to peel back the edges of their musical horizons, it is to subscibe to the mailing lists of shops and labels you trust. I can’t finish a list of the albums and artists I’ve grown to love because someone at aQuarius, Other Music, Forced Exposure, Vertigo or Amoeba simply loved a new or obscure piece and carved out a space for enthusiasm in the weekly newsletter. It’s why I share what I do on this blog. Last week, my email from Boomkat announced what has quickly become my favorite surprise in months: a new 12″ from Bee Mask (Chris Madak), a half hour of bliss spread over two songs titled Vaporware and Scanops.
The simplest of repeating glitch synth motifs tumbles into a spiritual rollercoaster with the crisp lines of Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians and the spacey wash of Klaus Schulze, yet it’s the beating heart of Terry Riley sinking in when thoughts of influence sprout during another listen. There’s something bright and pure and novel about his approach here: by stripping his sound to a base element, Madak opens the door to something more pure and evocative than he’s shown before. This is not just a case of his forebears shining through; it is thoughtful composition approaching the level of the aforementioned masters themselves.
I started this post one night while playing this on repeat and simply reached a point where words failed to capture my mouth agape, my lost thoughts, my tingling sense of elevation when either of these pieces hit that moment where time stands still and all earthly concerns lift. I don’t mean to imply that this is more transcendent than anything; most of my favorite music is. There are artists whom I can reliably go to for that spiritual high, that metaphysical flight, and I believe Bee Mask has just been added to the list.
Here’s a sample but nothing short of the entire piece will suffice.