Musical Fridays: Electronic

by Richard Southard, The River editor

“For me, electronic music is like cooking: it’s a sensual organic activity where you can mix ingredients.” -Jean-Michel Jarre

I find that quote interesting, mostly because the idea has proven quite true to me over the past year. However, rather than seeing it from a cooking perspective, it’s been more on the actual results (i.e. the food itself). Preparing for a new electronic album has sometimes felt like looking at a strange, unusual new dish  that I can’t always pin down the origins or taste of. Sometimes it reminds me of the first time I saw pineapple on pizza, questing if two certain ingredients should even be put together.

But, as such foods have proven, even a strange mix of ingredients can make for a decent result. At other points, it makes an amazing one.

However, in this case, we’re not looking at cooking (at least not now). This week, I’ll be talking about a few electronic albums that might catch some interest. Electronic music, at least by today’s perspective, is most often identified by dance music and various pop-oriented sounds. While I don’t particularly dislike those styles, I’m going to try and stick to ones that go a bit more beyond popular convention (“off the beaten path”, if you will).

Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

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Probably the most well-known album of this post, Cosmogramma is the experimental, beat-oriented sounds of producer Flying Lotus. Inspired by ideas such as daydreaming, out-of-body experiences, and psychoactive drugs, this album brings samples and sounds from both the 20th and 21st century. With great instrumental features from bassist Stephen Bruner (a.k.a. Thundercat), and a wide array of drums and electronic effects, this one knows no limits. While it’s not the only great track, “Zodiac Shit” describes the album quite well.

 

Boards of Canada – Geogaddi 

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One of the earlier albums of electronic duo Boards of Canada is also one of their darkest. Geogaddi, however, is not dark in a horrific or explicit sense. Its brighter moments draw you in, holding your attention with its light, humming ambient soundscapes or progressive drum patterns. “Beware the Friendly Stranger” is the first moment that feels a bit off, with grainy background noise and ominous, flute-like synths. This is right before fading into the grimly tense “Gyroscope.” This cycle of ups and downs continues throughout the album, creating a sort of slow, dramatic rollercoaster. This one will likely take time to digest (it did for me, at least), but there is bound to be something for everyone to enjoy.

Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

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Ravedeath, 1972 has my favorite title of all the albums here, even though I have little understanding as to what it means. What I do know is that this album has droning, echoing tracks that are gorgeously layered and atmospheric. The pulsing notes of “The Piano Drop” set the tone very nicely. But my favorite track has to be “In the Fog II”, where samples of a pipe organ fade in-and-out of one another to create a bleak, yet colorful symphony of hums. As he does in the rest of his work, Tim Hecker also uses the piano in ways I wouldn’t think possible for an electronic album. However, everything just seems to work.

Baths – Cerulean

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After talking about a few bleaker albums, I thought I would bring up one that is a bit more upbeat. Baths is an artist who uses a variety of sounds, both organic and sampled, to create tracks that are bright, colorful, or downright chill. This is also an album that incorporates vocals, many of which are falsetto, repeated verses. But the real treats here are the excellent melodies. Some of them, such the ones on “Aminals” and “Rafting Starlit Everglades,” can get stuck in your head all day.

Various Artists – Mono No Aware 

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This one actually came out this year, and it is shaping up to be my overall favorite (out of all genres). It is a compliation of ambient songs from eighteen different artists, and everyone delivers an effort. “Held”, “Limerence”, and “Huit” are my favorites, but the variety is huge due to the diversity of the contributors. For those who are curious, “mono no aware” translates to “the pathos of things”, with the album being a form of meditation on life and its transcendence. It sounds like an idea that would be difficult to express on an album, but give it a listen and you will likely see some of that idea come through. And if not, it is still a damn good album.

I will confess: some of these picks might not be the most accessible to jump right into (Cerulean probably being the easiest). However, I have actually picked most of them with that idea in mind. Part of my surprise with some of them is how much my opinion changed after listening for a while. I’m not saying that one must invest many, in-depth hours to enjoy any of them. If something is still painful on the sixth listen, it is probably okay to assume that you don’t like it. However, a bit of patience (and in some cases, an open mind) can lead to the most enjoyable of discoveries. That idea goes beyond music, of course.

Thanks for reading, and as always, I hope you enjoy the music (and if not, well, at least I tried).