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Adam Harper’s Pattern Recognition Vol. 1: The New Online Weird

In the first edition of his new monthly column for Electronic Beats, the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making trawls Bandcamp and Soundcloud to find new strains of music bubbling up online. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.


Someone once suggested to me that the only thing the internet has done for music is make it weirder. Not an easy comment to forget, and one that feels persuasive at first. The implication was that this new weirdness was an insignificant detail, an unimportant footnote to the well-rehearsed and perennial argument that musical creativity has stagnated. Yet surely if music were to be creeping into unvisited territories, the very first thing that you’d notice about it would be its fresh weirdness and a vague sense that it doesn’t quite make sense. This would not be the time to start dismissing new artists, or their online means of distribution and communication, as merely ‘weirder’—it would be the time to start listening very carefully.

It takes a considerable degree of vision and confidence to be weird. It’s not quite enough to make straight-up weird stuff, either—to truly get somewhere it has to be weird in a weird way. Together with software as its creative toolkit, the internet is exactly the forum for new kinds of weirdness to be born, since its platform is so wide-spread, so accessible, and has so much room for niches to form. Humor is one of the most obvious examples of this: lolcats or any number of other comic memes would have been dismissed as the symptoms of a fraying mind had they been offered to a publisher, magazine, or TV channel before the internet, but now they and their formats have become practically mainstream for those who spend even a small amount of time online. Now more complex weird cultures are emerging in the fields once known as art, music, literature, and fashion, all ready to be dismissed as, to paraphrase a famous put-down applied to techno in the ’90s, ‘faceless internet bollocks.’

The internet’s current most sophisticated platforms for new music (most notably Bandcamp and Soundcloud) are full of normal stuff, of course. Even if it’s often surprisingly proficient, much of what you find on them feels like it’s been uploaded straight from the rejection bins of conventional record companies. There’s a growing seam of weirdness online, however, right in the space that the pre-internet structures of new music-making were never able to reach or even recognize as aesthetically appealing. Three new interconnected net-based producers working somewhere within what might be described as experimental beats and house illustrate this process pretty well, forming a loosely coherent yet particular new sound that evades easy description because it is so weird. They are a i r s p o r t s, Karmelloz and RAP/RAP/RAP.

airsports, Karmelloz and RAP/RAP/RAP covers
Left to right: cover art for a i r s p o r t s’ BE THE 1 I DREAM OF, Karmelloz’s KarmellOz, and RAP/RAP/RAP’s STRANGE DAYS(2012)

Something else marking these producers out is that their music is not particularly conceptual—that is, it’s not obviously ‘about’ anything in particular, and doesn’t overridingly express recognizable cultural concepts before we’ve dived into its abstract qualities, such as mood and sonic characteristics. In today’s underground pop music, this is relatively unusual. For at least a decade, so much of the underground has been referencing, pastiching, or at least partially resonating with, other musical styles, eras from the past (from the late 19th century all the way up to the 1990s), and non-musical art and lifestyles. In many respects, this peaked with hypnagogic pop at the turn of the decade and one of its leading exponents, James Ferraro. Last November, however, Ferraro made one of the weirdest moves of his already decidedly rollercoaster creative career when he released Sushi.

Up until Sushi, all of Ferraro’s albums were, to differing extents, ‘about’ something, whether it was new age, bodybuilding, industrial cyborgs, high-school gross-out, horror, or internet-age virtual connectivity. They were lifestyle ideologies framed by poetic distance, and expressed their content in album names, covers, track titles, and sonic reference points. Sushi, however, was much less forthcoming, mysteriously offering nothing but a black cover bearing the title, track names too general and simplistic to suggest anything as specific as before, and sounds that were either too basic or too complex to spark much recognition. The title might have been relevant inasmuch as, like the food, the tracks were densely packed, bite-sized bundles of ingredients with an unusual overall texture and flavor (or relatively unusual to many Westerners, at least). But in short, Sushi was low-concept, and it was abstract. The musical style of Cold, Ferraro’s latest mixtape, is a little more recognizable as an ice-cold-hi-tech member of R&B’s extended family, yet even so, its appeal lay more in its sensuality and mood than in its making a commentary on something.

This abstract space, where you have little but your senses and your emotions to guide you, is the one a i r s p o r t s, Karmelloz and RAP/RAP/RAP invite you to explore. Even finding the words to characterize their music—much of which predates Sushi—is challenging, since it leaves only technical language and the potential for odd yet reductive metaphors. A lot of the time, attempting to do so only results in it sounding malformed, poor-quality, and uninviting, since their music is full of dissonance, clashes, and unevenness. But bear with me, since it’s a strange beauty that lies almost beyond reach.

a i r s p o r t s, apparently based in both Oregon and Lyon, France, has already received a little attention online, and though he’s been labelled as ‘hypnagogic’ and ‘seapunk’, his work is not quite either, or anything else for that matter. You’ll often run into shards of hypnagogic or vaporwave samples in it, their office-block ephemera still spinning in the ’80s or ’90s, but then there are also the pitched-shifted or glitchy vocals found in hip-hop beats. It took me a few listens before I realized that technically, much of his music is house, due to its tempo and regular kick drum, but I certainly hadn’t picked up the focused and affable groove you’d normally expect from the genre. There’s room for comparisons to the British school of lo-fi dance represented by Actress and Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland, but a i r s p o r t s is much busier and more feverish than they are. Instead, each a i r s p o r t s track is a bouquet of many different plants, where any combination of a few of them will complement each other fine, yet the whole is disquietingly excessive and discordant. His music is about the overall effect, the gestalt, or rather the subtle but endlessly intriguing dissonances caused as its many composite elements crowd together within the whole.

Dissonance is a characteristic that all three of these producers share, but it is not dissonance in the 20th century classical sense of the term. In this case, the clash of pitches occurs not within an instrument but between elements that in themselves are perfectly consonant. Hear, for example, the opening track on the album BE THE 1 I DREAM OF, “Purify”. It begins simply and pleasantly enough with a reverby, honky-tonk piano sample, and several tiers of complex percussion built up one by one. At 2:24, a backdrop of strings in a slightly different key gently undermines the tonal center of the piano, and later a tuned tom-tom pattern increases the effect. At this point, three different harmonic elements are doing their own thing, subtly independent from one another, each pulling your ear in a different direction. Then at around 3:25, the knife goes in: a pitched-up vocal that clashes noticeably with everything else. Suddenly the track goes from exuberantly, deliriously unfocused to almost uncomfortable.

If all these different elements were overlaid onto a single timbre, such as a piano, the dissonance would be immediately clear, clashing like a wrong note would. But because the elements are so different in the way they sound and how they’ve been processed or positioned within the auditory field, the overall effect is much more subtle. Rather than coming across as a glaring excess, it conjures a veiled, nagging sense of fear. It’s an emotional moment much more calculated and powerful than the carnival of seapunk, the hands-in-the-air of house, or the screwface posturing of the hip-hop style of production regurlarly referred to as ‘trap’. This intelligence of emotion and arrangement, and this creeping but never fully actualized sense of fear, doubt, or menace caused by the dissonance of contrasting but composite parts, is the major and mysterious strength of a i r s p o r t s, Karmelloz and RAP/RAP/RAP.

Some further highlights of a i r s p o r t’s work: on the self-titled album released by AMDiscs and Sewage Tapes, “dont need u”, in which the drop is a stuttering voice dangling precariously above a chasm of warm, razor synths. Or “coolDown©”, which is like approaching a giant yellow happy house smiley, only to find out that it’s really a backlit aquarium filled with algal slime and mutant shrimp. BE THE ONE I DREAM OF tends to be a shade more positive in tone, but it’s still unstable. The structure is mostly the same each time, with a groove building up until one element too many tips the whole thing over slightly. “Clarity” is a prancing hypnagogic disco until one of the characters from Street Fighter II shows up and starts pummelling the guests at hyperspeed (and yet the music goes on, he shows up here every night). The title track is urgent and airy, with a footwork kick drum pushing it forward, and yet the serrated helium vocals cut against everything like jamming cogs.

The music released by producer RAP/RAP/RAP is much less familiar. Don’t let the name fool you—although there are one or two references to rap, the grimly regular kick drum positions it closer to house. Yet this is far from your usual suck-up to classic Chicago and New York. RAP/RAP/RAP’s kick drum is relentless and usually much too loud, the claps and scrapes of the drum machine claw at your ear canals, the background pads and strings are nauseous, the samples are totally unexpected, and the ever-dissonant synths (an advanced case of the relatively rare FM variety) are like bars of sharpened glass. Her/his music is crude, basic and seems urgently purposive, but what the purpose might be is too unreadable for the club. Perhaps it’s in the spectacular contrast-yet-unity between the brutal percussion and the twinkling menace of the chimes. After the busy maximalism of Ferraro and so many other net-based producers, the precision minimalism of RAP/RAP/RAP is both refreshing and a little terrifying. It would be too easy to read her/him as another Ferraro, Jam City, or Nguzunguzu but not as good, not as complex, or simply ‘weirder’. The music demands a deeper listen than that—its weirdness is in its simplicity.

RAP/RAP/RAP’s best releases are UNTITLED001, BIRTH OF MAN (both on the dedicated artist page on Bandcamp) and STRANGE DAYS(2012), which, like other releases by a i r s p o r t s and Karmelloz, went up on Sewage Tapes’s page. UNTITLED001, for being consistently high-quality and shorter than the others, might be the best place to start. It includes the baleful flute of “MEANING OF LIFE”, the sorcerer’s drone and strangely sporadic interlocution of various synths in “VIDEOGAME ZENTER”, and “METROPOLIS”, which might be the one RAP/RAP/RAP track that would actually go off on a dancefloor, and dazzlingly so, despite the bizarre cavern-dwelling metallo-synth and the corrosive dissonances. BIRTH OF MAN should follow soon after, with the crystal-clear water flowing over the gods’ bodies in “POOL PARTY WITH JAYZ , TUPAC SHAKUR AND SOME FRIENDS”, the way the lilting dembow rhythm does little to reassure you that your drink hasn’t been spiked in “VERONA BEACH”, and the paradise of steel pans, blackbirds, chime trees, and a moronic vocal drawl in “HOW I HAD A VISION OF LINELAND”. Its clear highlight is the gorgeous and hauntingly titled “HUMAN PURGATORY”, with its slow reveal of an enormous cavern glittering with alien technology. Dozens more astonishing moments are to be found on perhaps the darkest album, STRANGE DAYS(2012), such as the superlatively creepy breakdown of “NASDAQ20”. RAP/RAP/RAP should be admired not only for the unique sensual and emotional qualities s/he sculpts with such basic tools, but also for finding something fascinating to do and exploring it so thoroughly.

Of the three producers, Karmelloz (like a i r s p o r t s, from Oregon) is rhythmically the closest to hip-hop beats, and perhaps the most technically accomplished, though his music loses none of its weirdness to slickness. To date, Karmelloz’s favorite strategies involve careful manipulation of the frequency spectrum, muffling rolling waves of organic ambience and surgically overlaying thin metallic structures and boldly incongruous voices that introduce dissonance. He’s a surrealist, one that has not forgotten that the most troubling dreams are just as much about their scarcely expressible emotional tinge as their bizarre juxtapositions.

Karmelloz’s strongest release is KarmellOz, also on Sewage Tapes. “Lawofattraction” is an unforgettable twisting-together of hi-frequency gossamer, a shambling beat, a cybernetic ballet dancer’s pirouetting, and an endlessly stuttering narrator. His other Sewage release, ArchaiC includes the foreboding “Splenda” with its out-of-sync Adele sample and his most bizarre track, “Kirstin’s Song”, like something devised by reptilian scavengers on a desert planet, but which a dying astronaut might hallucinate as footwork. Earlier releases such as Beauty are also worthwhile, and can be found on the Bandcamp artist page. On May 13th, Karmelloz will release an album, Bud Air, on Bandcamp label Interscape Records Ltd. With a more up-tempo and energized sound than his previous releases, it retains their startling imagination.

If you hadn’t guessed it already, the key connection between these three producers is Sewage Tapes. A i r s p o r t s and Karmelloz even joined forces on one release for the label. Plenty of other like-minded but perhaps still developing producers can be found in the online vicinity too, such as BOYMTN, 私はやせすぎだったら, BLK SMK, OLD MOMS and BoYsTn, and on other Bandcamp labels such as Aural Sects, Fluorescent Records and Nightcore Records. Based on the progress of this sound so far, especially as manifested in a i r s p o r t s, RAP/RAP/RAP and Karmelloz, there’s much promise in it. They might represent a reaction against the referentiality and emotional superficiality that has been so common in music lately, countering them as they do with the subtle but inexorable return of the kind of pure sense and feeling that comes from confusion and mystique, oozing from a dark and very weird place.~

Published May 05, 2013. Words by Adam Harper.