Adventures in Modern Experimental
This month, rather than look at recent electronic releases that the Rinse Out normally plays, I would like to take a look at two stand out experimental albums. Don’t worry, though, this isn’t going to be an exercise in free jazz or harsh dissonance. Instead, we’ll take a look at two musicians who are pushing music in a more conceptual way.
James Ferraro – NYC, HELL 3:00 AM (Hippos In Tanks)
Released on October 15th on Hippos In Tanks, NYC, HELL 3:00 AM is the latest effort from psychedelic experimental master James Ferraro. The album continues in the dark, seedy, urban R&B direction that marked his previous mixtape Cold. Ferraro evokes the areas of the city that you may not know about (and may not want to know about). The usual Ferraro themes are here in abundance: sexuality, paranoia, vanity, half-hidden memories, decay. One need only look at some of the track titles to get a sense of this: “Fake Pain”, “Close Ups”, “City Smells”, “Eternal Condition”, “Cheek Bones”, and “Nushawn.” The latter track (incidentally the final track on the album) neatly characterizes most of these themes and is in reference to the notorious New York City criminal who purposely spread HIV to unwitting women in the 1990s. The effect is a heavy one.
However, irony and sarcasm have often been ascribed to Ferraro’s work, but he adamantly denies those labels. Recently, he addressed his supposed motives as a producer in an interview with Stereogum:
“…when I was making that record… I literally lost friends. People asked me, “What are you doing?” I’m just like, “Damn, man, how can you not see…?” People focused on “Oh the fidelity is changing.” Yeah, but for me [Far Side Virtual] was the darkest record I’ve ever made in my life and people don’t really see it like that. I love that people take away that plastic eco-pop, that frozen yogurt brain-dead vibe, but people think it’s a joke but for me… I’m really shocked because I don’t understand. How is that a joke?”
Upon first listen, unfamiliar listeners may make similar claims about NYC, HELL 3:00 AM, as it trades heavily on pop R&B tropes and is filled with heavily auto-tuned and vocoded Ferraro singing. It becomes abundantly clear, though, that this album is not about laughing or winking at the viewer. We get a deeply personal and dark vision of contemporary urban society, one that addresses invisible signifiers of late capitalism throughout. While Ferraro’s singing may not fire on all cylinders for me (and I imagine many listeners), his musical production is top-notch throughout. Terrifying and evocative, NYC, HELL 3:00 AM immediately enters into the top echelon of Ferraro releases for me, taking its place next to Silica Gel (released under the BODYGUARD moniker), Far Side Virtual, and On Air (among others).
Oneohtrix Point Never – R + 7 (Warp)
Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) has always been a boundary pusher. Eccojams Vol. 1 (released as Chuck Person) was a monumental entry into the modern experimental scene and was closely followed by James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual in its Baudrillardian worship of simulacra—an object or representation that lacks an original that nonetheless feels familiar and comfortable to a viewer or consumer. R + 7 continues in this tradition, boldly pushing sonic and conceptual boundaries. Lopatin continually makes music that has an inherent plasticity to it, such that listeners can find new things to enjoy upon each listen while the music seems to evolve depending on the circumstances under which it is heard.
It also feels plastic in a more visceral sense: the fidelity with which it is produced provides a sense of hyperreality that is not present in more conventional music. For instance, “Problem Areas” has a sheen that takes us well beyond the sonic experience that we may expect (in fact, the music video for the track is an excellent visual representation of the sonicscape). However, the music is not just references to non-existent corporate idents and muzak. Tracks like “Still Life” give off a suffocating sense of dread and, at times, feels like the musical equivalent of staring into the void. Fear not, though, as the album is bookended with gorgeous, baroque organs that give the impression that Lopatin is encouraging the listener to laugh at the absurdity of life. I highly recommend experiencing this album at least once and to take a walk on the musical wild side.