Proto Droids – Sequential Dreams

[woe, 2021]

Proto Droids is the side project for Correlations’ main synthesist, Neil Hale. If you haven’t yet heard of him, I highly suggest picking up any of the releases under that moniker. This album, however, is in my blood. I can’t get enough of it. It’s on my short list for album of the year, and I won’t likely stop listening for a long while to come. Listening to it is like mainlining 80s Horror VHS soundtrack nostalgia. And for any person who had the luxury of living through that era, and who still enjoys a good spook flick, it’s these types of things that stick most with you. Every single song on this album is a keeper.

“Trophy Hunter”‘s warbly, echoey arpeggiator kicks the album off, and immediately the listener knows what’s in store. The synths have a warm, rounded nature to them. They sound at times as though they’ve weathered through years on dusty shelves. Slightly ominous, but incredibly alluring, it plays like a title screen in an old cinema—the song wandering off in the interlude as though it were taking a quick trip through the woods at night, before coming back full circle. You can practically see the film grain and the title cards with their delicate jittering.

Hale employs tape manipulation throughout the album. It’s a clear ode to the warping of old movie tapes, with images of a bygone era filled with mom-and-pop VHS rental stores; towards the back is the infamous adults-only section. You kids stay out! And while Sequential Dreams is in clear homage to horror film’s golden years, it doesn’t hit the way you’d think it would. “Digits Dancing I” recalls those childhood-like moments in horror movies between the killings. A playful walk to school in the first act; the introduction of the lead character’s love interest; the iron-clad, life-long high school friendship between two adorable outcasts. The threat isn’t quite there yet, we’re still learning of the setting and its actors.

Then comes the first sign of trouble: “Veil.” Though not quite a frenzied bloodfest, it brings a sense that something lurks beneath the surface–that not all is quite right. This leads inexorably to “The Search,” a haunting, thumping chase scene straight out of a John Carpenter film. “You Got the Blood” continues this sequence.

Hale’s synth tones remain somewhat consistent throughout, further driving the notion that this is an album out of time, unearthed from a long-forgotten buried grade school time capsule.

And that is the fun of the album. Besides Hale’s extremely capable emotional stylings and preternatural knack for hitting on precisely the theme he’s aiming for, the joy is in the imagery this album constructs in the minds of the listeners. Furthermore, it isn’t precisely scripted. There are avenues left to be explored by the listener’s singular imagination. It’s this ability to tap into that aspect of the act of listening that makes this album so damn enjoyable to come back to over and over again. The tale grows. It morphs and changes organically the more listens one gives it. And it’s a tale I’ll be coming back to many times for the foreseeable future.

Listen to and purchase the digital album on Bandcamp. Those who missed out on the insanely cool cassette would be extremely lucky if Neil decided to do a third run.

BUNKR – Graveyard Orbit

[VLSI Records Ltd., 2021]

BUNKR is James Dean, a producer in Brighton, UK and co-founder of Cookshop. He’s previously recorded under the moniker, Lost Idol, and has released a couple EPs, and a debut album with a subsequent remix as BUNKR.

Despite the ominous title, the music here is pretty optimistic-sounding. Graveyard Orbit—a term for the area of space where satellites that have lived out their usefulness go to die—weaves thick, chunky bass lines, sparkling keys, shimmering synths, snappy drums, and heavily modulated sequences and symphonic waves of womping sound. It’s science fiction music to dance to.

The album opens with soft, ambient washes of synth, recalling vintage science fiction films. It picks up in intensity before giving way to more subdued, modulated keys and layers of atmospheric undertones. Like an overture for what follows, it sets the tone: you’ve begun your journey outward.

“Stargazing” is simply beautiful. It begins with gentle keys, bathed in vats of reverb (naturally!). Its drums build slowly, meter by meter, until the big turn in the song, where they start to pick up velocity into a meteoric, metronomic, driving force. By the time you’ve hit where this happens at about the three minute mark, you’re hooked. It’s an incredibly satisfying listen, and a highpoint in an album filled with many.

The title track and lead single bursts forth with lovely thumpy kick drums and percolating mid-range bloops. Dean has widened the stereo spread on the brushed hi-hat here, which allows it to playfully bounce along the listener’s ears while core of the song chugs along gleefully. It all paints a picture of an eagerness typically at odds with the idea of death. But perhaps to the satellite it’s not dying at all. Perhaps it’s escaping the prison of a lifetime of servitude; to the satellite, maybe it’s a joyous occasion. And so it dances its way out.

The mastery Dean shows on “Graveyard Orbit,” as well as on the entire album, is in his contrasting tones and timbres. The album feels full—carefully crafted and mixed with a deft precision. There are layers and layers here to unpack, and they’re easy to miss for the whole. That’s saying something. It underscores the cohesiveness of it all, the ease with which to let it all just wash over you as it unfolds. Like a lone object enveloped by the glittering of billions of stars in the vastness of space.

Listen to and purchase Graveyard Orbit on Bandcamp.

Leah Kardos – Bird Rib

[bigo & twigetti 2020]

I’m admittedly a bit late to the game with Leah Kardos. This is the first release I’ve had the pleasure to hear from her, and it is a wildly enjoyable listen. Kardos balances ambient, glitch, jazz, electronica, and IDM together in ways that will instantly connect with fans of Floating Points or Rupert Lally. Each of these six pieces here are unique in their delivery, but contain a consistency in their theme and tone.

In Kardos’ own words, Bird Rib came together from pieces left over from her previous release Rococochet, with many of the songs starting out from a process in which she reversed the tape. Listening to this, however, it’s not obvious that this was the approach. These tunes sound fresh, birthed from the ether, yet grounded in a strong foundation of song composition.

Take for instance the second song, “Into Sporks” with its glitchy beat, twinkling, trebly, staccato bells, soft, propulsive bass, and xylophone which glues the piece together. It comes together in a lovely way, feeling purposeful in its execution and intent.

Then there’s “Heavy Hand.” Holy shit, there’s “Heavy Hand.” None of these songs are throw-aways, but “Heavy Hand” is the clear standout. It displays an absolute mastery of blending jazzy piano, bells, mallets, jazz drumming, electronics, saxophone, vocal sampling—I could go on. The layers are incredibly deep in this song, and the second you feel you’ve pinned it down, it offers something new. Just magnificent!

If you can, I encourage you to pick up the beautiful orange vinyl from Bandcamp on this final Bandcamp Friday of 2021. If you miss out on Bandcamp Friday, buy it tomorrow. Listen to this in the morning when you wake up. Listen to it while relaxing with your morning coffee. Put it back on in the early evening. I promise you, you will be rewarded over and over.

Purchase vinyl and/or digital copies here.

Patrick R. Pärk – Sports Themes for Psychonauts

[Ethereal Mother Tapes, 2021]

Patrick R. Pärk’s newest release, Sports Themes for Psychonauts, is a self-described alternate theme for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. But this isn’t some background noise meant to drum up mushy feelings of a rah-rah, joyous celebration of the coming-together of athletes in a globally harmonious act of symbolism. No, this is something darker—murkier—its ominous sequences looping in on each other, evolving, dissolving into washes of noise. It’s the antithesis of the recent work (or recent unearthing of the previous work, based on whom you believe) of Kosmischer Läufer.

“Light the Lamp” doesn’t bring to mind an opening ceremony filled with rejoicing fans and open-armed embracing of a world united. Instead, it plays as an opening to a Wes Craven film, a dreary foreshadowing. “Mescalero Gambit”‘s discordant melodies bounce off each other, driving unease and a feeling of hesitancy. “Soul Court Press” brings to mind early Cure, with their simple, sad plucked riffs and understated gothiness. “Down to the Last Out” recalls some of GAS’s darker, late works; though punchier and less symphonic in nature.

When you consider the backdrop to those olympics—the fact that they came a year after a global pandemic had shut them down, and continued in earnest despite the ongoing struggle to contain said pandemic that had to that point killed over 4 million people worldwide—it makes sense this collection of songs isn’t in the mood to dance. It’s a soundtrack that highlights the true background of those olympics. It’s a transmission that aims to cut through the fallacies of what was being presented. It’s a well-produced, and sonically ambitious truth-sayer.

Listen to and order the album here. While you’re there, check out some of Pärk’s numerous other works.

Kl(aüs) – Kl(aüs)

[Castles in Space, 2016]

Kl(aüs) is a project from Australian friends Stewart Lawler and Jonathan Elliott. I’ve just recently stumbled onto this group’s debut album, and took to this album immediately. With motorik beats, chugging bass synths, and gorgeous keys and orchestration overlaying bits of found sound and some additional odds and ends, this album fits nicely with the likes of Tangerine Dream, NEU!, Cluster, and Jean-Michel Jarre, while still maintaining a clearly defined sound of its own.

Where those artists’ albums can at times feel loose, meandering, or in some cases unpolished, Kl(aüs) is compact, deliberate, and focused throughout. These songs are driven by their underlying sequences, allowing the accompanying synths and additional effects to dance over the top. The songs remain rooted to the motorik aspects, working with a fully solidified foundation upon which additional instrumentation builds, layer upon layer, sometimes into beautiful, lengthy crescendos.

“Three Sheets” starts with such a sequence that never relinquishes its influence on the direction of the song until the very end, finally fading out in favor of gentle keys.

“Proof Portal” picks up where “Three Sheets” leaves off with soft strings surrounding a processed flute while hi-hat and a bass sequence slowly fade in. These touchstones of mid to late 70s electronica, including generous use of chimes, recall classic science fiction scores and works by Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, and Michael Stearns’ Planetary Unfolding.

The remainder of Kl(aüs) is much the same, however never approaching sameness to the point of being boring. The album is full of warm washes of beautifully-played synths and rhythmic sequences, with Lawler and Elliott in clear sync with one another. It’s an album best listened to actively and in full, but I’ve found that placing it on in the background is just as rewarding.

Since releasing this album, Kl(aüs) have produced a second LP (2020’s 2) and a live album, all for Castles in Space. The first two LPs have long since sold out, leaving people such as myself clamoring for repressings. As of this writing, there are still copies left of the live album, however. I expect that we’ll be hearing more from this group in the near future, and I am very much looking forward to it.

You can purchase the digital albums and additional merchandise on the band’s Bandcamp space:

Negative Response – Submersion Therapy

[Negative Products, 2021]

Negative Response, the minimal synth group which began in 1980, is back with its first new material since 1983. And it’s quite an achievement! The nine tracks found on Submersion Therapy instantly recall cold wave/minimal wave from that period, while still feeling forward-thinking and edgy. This is incredible minimal wave synth and post-punk you’d expect to find on a label like Dais Records or Sacred Bones, but is surprisingly (and amazingly) self-released by the artist. Each track glistens and warbles with a vintage iciness, with vocals laden with vocoder and murky effects. Equal parts John Foxx, late stage Joy Division, and ADULT.

Album opener, “Dancing on the Head of a Pin” kicks off with a Cold War-era-sounding synth sequence, quickly accompanied by some modulated strings. Vocals are run through a vocoder, and the effect is otherworldly—the song’s imagery suggesting rebirth of something not quite benevolent: “Emerging from the wreckage that lay scattered on the ground / A flaming cape of orange. A ruthless sense of right and wrong…. He was blessed. / Or just losing his mind.”

It’s a strong start to an album filled with such sentiments. Throughout, there is a sense of the unnatural awakening itself, fighting to control itself in its new environment. “Artificial”‘s narrator is a sentient being with “no emotion to speak of” and a borrowed personality. It is searching for itself in a foreign world, finds itself with “strange feelings taking hold.”

“Truth” continues this model, infusing a chugging bass synth, surrounded by a wall of strings and twinkling bells, with the narrator grasping at the existential “did you find your truth”.

However, for me, it’s the standout “Coral Pink and Candy Coloured Sky” that really melds these ominous sounds in the most exciting way. The song’s beginning throws the listener for a bit of a loop, accenting the counter rhythm with what could be described as ultra-modulated horn blurts before the song kicks into gear with some thunderous drums. It blends the best the album has to offer in terms of the depth of tones of the synths, robotic vocals, and metronomic drum machine—with a narrator, reacting to an alien-feeling, multicolored sunset, and who states “far from home this is a strange land, / Stranger than I’ve ever known.”

These are sentiments that are not uncommon to this genre of music, but they lend themselves perfectly to the mechanical, precise rhythms presented here. Perhaps not a direct connection to the pandemic, and for that I’m fairly thankful, it’s a great example of minimal wave/post punk in the 2020’s as we’ve become separated from the lives we once knew, only to find ourselves rebirthed in a new reality in which we’re searching for answers.

You can find the album for sale on Negative Response’s Bandcamp page, and the lathed, handmade vinyl is an absolute treat and highly recommended as well!

Purchase here:

John Carpenter – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death

[Sacred Bones, 2021]

If you love John Carpenter’s past work as much as I do, you’ll already be aware of this album. If you are new to John Carpenter (dear god, how could you be???), know this: those late 80’s-90’s synth-driven horror soundtracks to films you grew up with are most likely inspired by him. His latest with his son, Cody and Godson, Daniel Davies is another fantastic entry into his non-soundtrack library. Although this time around, they are spreading their wings a bit more. “Dripping Blood,” “Turning the Bones,” and “Dead Eyes” are reminiscent of Carpenter’s more subtle work on soundtracks like Christine or Halloween III: Season of the Witch, while songs like “Vampire’s Touch” and “Cemetery” reach for the rawness of some of Carpenter’s more sonically invigorating pieces. Highlights include “Weeping Ghost,” “Skeleton,” and “The Dead Walk.” Grab a copy as soon as you can from Sacred Bones. Or, you know, don’t and miss out on some cool shit.

Buy here:

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Imaginary Softwoods – Annual Flowers in Color

[Mineral Disc, 2020]

As a fan of late 2000s/early 2010s ambient/electronic group Emeralds, I was somewhat familiar with John Elliott’s work in Outer Space. Somewhere in the aftermath of Emerald’s demise, and in the midst of diving into each member’s solo and extended catalogs, I criminally leapt over his outstanding work in his Imaginary Softwoods.

This is happy, hopeful music. Drenched in the bittersweet chord progressions are swaths of glittering, plucking peaks; within the layers of symphonic chorus and floating, delayed swells of ethereal keys, oscillating arpeggios dance as if soaking in the late summer’s dawn.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and finds the beauty in late 70s sci-fi schlock scores as much as in contemporary neo-classical tomes of Max Richter and Steve Reich. There is as much Double Fantasy’s Universal Ave in these pieces as there is Harold Budd’s The Pearl and Reich’s tape loops.

“Aura Show” opens with something that sounds much like a singing bowl. The calm and gently swaying waves soon give way to a deep undercurrent slowly churning up the surface before slinking back into the depths, leaving the sun gleaming off the bouncing wake. The song culminates in the light, its lasting impression a vision of sighing breezes on sheer curtains.

“Destination Stone’s” dreamy, echoing analog synths are bookended by a set of glitchy scratches, distant long-forgotten video game sounds, and off-key carnival ephemera. It’s like stepping though a shattered crystal door, into a hall of mirrors, then back through the crystal door.

All this said, the album is remarkable from front to back, whether actively listening or as a mood-setter in late afternoon—or actively listening in late afternoon, as I’ve found it to be most enjoyable. It’s also a solid notice that I have a lot of catching up to do on Elliott’s catalog. I’m starting right away.

Listen to or purchase the green and red vinyl editions here:

Leif – Loom Dream

[Whities, 2019]

Found sounds, droney backdrops, natural elements, ethereal woodwinds, and sequenced chimes. Leif Knowles creates a feeling of pastoral mystery—the feeling you get when dusk hits, the fireflies come out, and fog sets in. There’s no dreariness to it. On the contrary, it’s an album overflowing with wonder and intrigue. Leif sounds excited as he weaves these songs together: all pinpricks and dopamine.

“Myrtus” is a standout, with its sequenced African xylophone and humming, softly ringing tones. I absolutely love this album and listen to it on repeat.

Listen and purchase here:

Kate NV – Room for the Moon

[RVNG Intl., 2020]

Russian musician Kate NV’s new album, Room for the Moon, expands on the minimalist synth pop from 2018’s для FOR. As with that album, analog synths garble, bleep, and thump, but this time around NV is much more polished. There is an immediacy to this album that was slightly missing from her previous efforts. The growth is noticeable, her voice is more confident, and her songwriting skills are sharp. As with all Kate NV albums, there remains a level of quirkiness certain to delight fans but risk a widespread embrace. It’s what sets her apart, however, and it is what will ultimately allow her to build an enduring legacy. Check it out if you like Japanese minimalism, Yellow Magic Orchestra, or analog synth pop in general.

Purchase vinyl, digital, cd, or cassette here: