The great paradox of the soundscape as musical mode is that the best background music is also the best music for full immersion, for completely saturating the senses and diving into a deep, rich, enveloping ocean of sound. The albums reviewed below illustrate this dictum with varying degrees of sublimity. Except for Jlin — Jlin’s too noisy to recede into the background. She demands your attention.
Jlin: Black Origami (Planet Mu)
Subgenres of instrumental electronica evolve fast, and while Jlin is footwork’s most prominent name alongside the late DJ Rashad, her second album sounds like a departure. Layering a dazzling array of auxiliary sound effects onto the genre’s crisp, rattling syncopated drums, these tracks are the product of a gloriously overstuffed sonic imagination.
Jlin named her superb 2015 debut Dark Energy, a fitting title: streamlined and fluid, constantly moving, a polished whirl of silvery snares and amelodic keyboards and kinetic motion. Black Origami describes the sequel aptly as well, as this is music of a stunning intricacy. Denser and splatterier, faster and more hyperactive, her sonic ornaments inhabit a nearly baroque level of detail.
The drums, alternately bitingly metallic, briskly clangy, sharp and tinny or deep and echoey or tensely jittery, stretch across a wide range of textures to produce a sense of being always on one’s feet, always morphing into new patterns, bouncing around in tightly demarcated spaces. Pitched percussion effects provide tonal variety, but melody isn’t the focus. Rather, dissonant sirens fade in and out, simulated evocations of voices blabbering or mosquitoes whining, chopped up into a million tiny little sonic pieces and arranged with exquisite balance over the churning sea of rhythm.
“Enigma” clatters and springs as snippets of human shouts ring out over the track, both interrupting and interrupted by the drums; “Kyanite” deploys similarly spliced shrieks and buzzes, like a quartet of air-raid sirens out of tune, over a drum track so acutely polymorphous it’s as much Indian classical as Detroit techno. The result is a giant, awe-inducing, inordinately complex machine — hissing and sizzling, gears churning, teeth crunching, yet performing its function, whatever that may be, with maximum efficiency.
As usual with music so technologically immersive, one wonders whether the extreme intensity is celebratory or nightmarish. It’s a false distinction: she’s showing off her ability to sketch environments, many of them sinister. Runaway formal invention is joyful and scary.
Relax World: Beautiful Sound: Anti-Aging Healing (Sugar Candy Records)
This bizarre album, one of many in a never-ending assembly line of stock meditative instrumental compilations by a mysterious organization called Relax World, is almost certainly not intended for enjoyment by ordinary music consumers; I’d guess massage parlors and dentists’ offices constitute Relax World’s main market share. Listen more carefully and discover quietly dissonant invention, modestly pretty and entertaining synthesizer noises, and indeed, soothingly peaceful ear candy.
Since stock compilation producers are frustratingly hard to track down beyond the appearance of the compilations themselves in online music stores and streaming services, I have many unanswered questions about this album, and for all I know this music was recorded by algorithm.
Perhaps that would explain its intermittent harmonic weirdness — occasional but noticeable chordal juxtapositions that startle, jarringly unexpected notes that likely would have been corrected by a living, breathing human editor, had one been paying attention.
Nonetheless, if an actual sentient artist released these twenty identical tracks, say an acclaimed vaporwave producer hoping to branch out in a new direction, electronica fans would bask in the immersive sonics, simultaneously plush and spare, while savoring the very melodic incongruities that keep listeners on edge.
On the surface, behold a luscious exhibition of whooshes and glides, whistles and sighs, clouds of electronic polish sucked through tubular vacuums, synthesized flutes and strings playing through fields of computerized fog. But smooth keyboards can waver, preprogrammed patterns can spiral off in unexpected directions, and many of these tracks assume abrasive qualities that, oddly, complement the tranquil bits in a texturally appealing blend of crunchy and sweet.
Gleaming, billowing waves of synthesized foam slowly cascade over you, gradually assuming massive proportions. When neat little hooks pop up, as they often do, so does a sense of delight and wonder.
Slow, sweeping, committed to aural serenity and aching feelgood beauty, this is quite the vapid album, but that’s not necessarily a negative. Vapidity can be physically pleasurable and intellectually engaging. It amuses.
Slowdive: Slowdive (Dead Oceans)
The latest early-‘90s shoegaze band to reunite in the new millennium and resume the touring grind has taken great pains to replicate their old sound and pick up where they left off, with nary a stylistic departure to be heard. Their first album in 22 years aims for haziness and placidity.
Even given the tendency of quieter shoegaze tracks to blur into each other, seemingly unified by the same amplifier noise spilling across linear distinctions and song boundaries, Slowdive could have been released in 1996, clicking exactly into their musical progression. I’m not even sure I could distinguish this album’s shimmery, blissful guitar undulations from those on 1991’s Just for a Day, so monolithic is their sonic wash.
Rhythmically pealing waves of arpeggiated guitar echo over expanses of feedback, shivering wind, surges of atmosphere, varnished with a soft aural fuzziness that functions as a damper. They’ve gathered the requisite materials for a wall of sound and assembled them in reverent hushed miniature, as if constructing a sacred musical space too fragile for any sort of energy or dissonance. Rocking would disrupt the cleansing of their muted, vulnerable, contemplative, vague feelings.
Perhaps historical context provides a key distinction, as the indie-rock landscape has caught up to shoegaze in ways that must have seemed unthinkable when the style was first invented. This type of nebulous guitar shimmer sounds decidedly less weird now that sonically similar bands have filtered the aesthetic into psychedelia, dream pop, what have you, and music festival audiences across the world have heard hundreds of such bands booming and gushing from the stage. Slowdive is now one of them; they sound rather like Beach House. Their singing is mushier, though.
This album abounds with pretty sonic details, but the notion of barely audible oceanic vastness smacks of perversity. They’re too comfortably numb.
Thundercat: Drunk (Brainfeeder)
Best known for playing bass guitar on albums by Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and many others, crossover jazz virtuoso Thundercat has gradually made a name for himself as a go-to instrumentalist for musicians of other genres who want jazz flavors on their tracks. His solo music sounds like what you’d expect given the bass guitar on Flying Lotus albums: airy, bewildered, soul-inflected expanses of harmonically warped space.
Drunk contains several stunning demonstrations of instrumental prowess, but despite the number of talented musicians playing on the record, Thundercat is uninterested in building groove and often dispenses with continuity between songs and styles. The idea is to create an immersively surreal dreamscape, which means perpetual motion — 23 tracks, most within the one or two-minute range, one rushed exercise after another, jumping around with jerky skittishness.
Dominant in the musical slipstream are glassy keyboards, angular guitar riffs, cooing background sighs whose queasy sway provides sweetening, and bass guitar so fluid and hyperactive he could be parodying fusion jazz — quite a bit of noodling, skipping and popping and spiraling around in lithe, giddy patterns. He sings, too, in a faintly breathy voice that follows the music’s lead; often his lyrics are weird enough to suggest oblique attempts at satire (sample: “Gonna eat so much fish I think I’m gonna be sick/gonna blow all my cash on anime,” also “It’s cool to be a cat/meow meow meow”).
Paradoxically, the album’s frenzied rush leaves a dazed afterglow — he’s trying to wow listeners into submission, and he keeps you so on your toes that the state of being on your toes congeals into a sort of stupefied inertia. “Uh Uh” hops over bass, piano, and staccato drums, each scrambling to play the fastest, each element offsetting another, while “Jethro” moves to the sway of ascending bass and descending keyboards interlocking in unpredictable ways. Elsewhere he just floats around, throwing instruments together and melting them into an ethereal swirl.
Thundercat’s musical impatience makes it hard to immerse in this most atypical of mood albums, but the range of moods is worth gawking at. Eclecticism lives!