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Electronic music’s breath of fresh air

John Darr | Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Every music aficionado remembers “the good old days.” For some, it’s the 60s, the era of Rock and Roll, when the pop music scene boasted groups that were constantly innovating and sending messages through their lyrics. For others it’s the early 2000s, when a spree of classic indie rock records spanning Modest Mouse’s “The Moon and Antarctica” to Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” were released upon the world. In some rare instances, we get to live through days that we know will be “the good old days” – as my friend and band member Gray Whisnant once said, “We’re fortunate to be alive when Kanye West is still releasing music.”

Personally, I’ve always been enthralled by electronic music. As a producer and composer, the techniques electronic musicians employ to craft completely new and genuinely emotional sounds out of mere machines never fails to awe me. My so-called “good old days” for electronic music were the nineties, a time when groups like Daft Punk and producers like Aphex Twin were just starting to reveal the infinite possibilities of the synthesizer and the sampler. 

In the 70s, electronic records like Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra” and Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” established a musical foundation for the genre, but lack the emotional power or aesthetic complexity needed to draw in many modern listeners, myself included. Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works,” released in 1992, opened up new doors into the textural possibilities of the synthesizer, crafting rich and inviting soundscapes for listeners to dive into. Daft Punk’s 1997 album “Homework” introduced the possibility of living, breathing dance music without human vocals. Both works, of course, are mere standouts in an era of similar steps forward.

Recently, many producers have been making a name off of melding synthesizers with a human element. Many of today’s most famous producers – David Guetta and Calvin Harris to name a few – are famous for their collaborations with vocalists. Hotshot indie producers like Flying Lotus and Bonobo meld organic sounds with sampled instruments and gritty synthesizers to lessen the synthetic nature of the genre. 

As much as I love the vitality and richness of today’s electronic music, I often find myself wondering where the Aphex Twin style, the old Daft Punk style, went. For a while, I simply accepted that people were done listening to so-called robot music.

And yet Oneohtrix Point Never, in his new album “R Plus Seven,” has crafted just that. Oneohtrix is the musical project of producer Daniel Lopatin, producer renowned for his work in ambient electronic music. His past music has been rich, textured and sample-heavy, focusing on recordings of acoustic instruments paired with synthesized landscapes.

In contrast, “R Plus Seven” is constructed merely from synthesizers and the occasional distorted vocal snippet. In this way, “R Plus Seven” harkens back to the “good old days,” where artists managed to capture life through the non-living. Each selection is a tapestry of simple sounds – simple synthesizer notes and drum machine hits. And yet the production, the arrangement of each sound, teases life and motion out of each phrase. Each element swells and bends in the context of its surroundings. 

In “Zebra,” a bright synth glitches through a glittering field of synth pads and the occasional pan flute, giving the impression of a rich jungle. “Along” uses alternately spaced and cluttered synth vocals amidst bells to emulate both the calm and chaos of a city at night. And in the closer “Chrome Country,” an obviously artificial choir exudes calm an emotion; Lopatin’s decision to give the choir an simple melody and to nestle it into the background rather than the forefront of the song gives the impression of a holy humbleness when contrasted against a strong organ line.

Each track on “R Plus Seven” uses innovative tricks and careful musical framing to bring complex, lively ideas to life from simple electronic elements. It’s a feat of production and composition, a work that achieves more than most modern electronic albums while using comparatively ancient technology. “R Plus Seven” is a stunning step forward in a musical arena, which many have deserted in favor of the hip and new. Assuming that Lopatin continues down the path which Aphex Twin and Daft Punk started traversing long ago, it may not be long until the electronic music’s “good old days” are back again.

Contact John Darr at jdarr@nd.edu