Compared with more traditional instruments that have been played for centuries, the analog synthesizer went from cutting-edge to retro in a remarkably short space of time. With the advent of digital processing and the laptop as the music tool of choice for a new generation of electronic musicians, there was a time when it felt as if the analog synthesizer, which came into its own in the 1960s, might have had a shelf-life measured in mere decades. It had offered a couple of distinctive motifs to the musical world – cosmic atmospherics and the insistently pulsing sequencer rhythm – before ceding the stage, like the protagonists of Toy Story, to more up-to-date electronic playthings. The association of early analog synth sounds with an era in science fiction whose ray-guns-and-jetpacks vision of the future now seems quaint added to the curious cultural positioning of synth music as futuristic yet almost immediately retro. For at least some of us who grew up with Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, the digital revolution was not all unalloyed gain. Thankfully, fears of obsolescence have proved premature – a steady flow of recent releases continues to unfold the possibilities of the synthesizer sound world, whether with vintage equipment or its hand-constructed descendants. The three albums below are my favorites from the first half of 2012.
Ian Boddy – Strange Attractors
Ian Boddy is curator of the British DiN label, which specializes in analog synthesizer music, and is himself a veteran and prolific composer with over 50 releases credited to him at discogs.com. He can be relied upon to produce regular additions to the genre that stay faithful to its traditional features while stretching its expressive possibilities. His first 2012 release, Strange Attractors, recorded live at a recent concert series (a further live album, After the Rain, has since also been released), is a worthy addition to his substantial body of work, offering dark atmospheres, gurgling rhythms, and a sense of epic scale achieved through the careful looping and layering of sounds. Mysteriously atmospheric, cosmic swirls of sound accompanied by alienated gurgles, hums and swishes make some of the tracks patient, ominous mood pieces, evoking cold alien vistas as they unfold with a kind of sedate majesty. The other tracks build around rhythmic sequencer grooves in which the tempo stays hypnotically fixed but slow-burning builds and ebbs are engineered through the subtle manipulation of timbre and the careful addition and subtraction of accompanying elements. The album is cerebral in tone, inviting the listener to linger and watch the painstaking process of construction and deconstruction and admire the skilled placement of each new sound. The more propulsive tracks nevertheless also create motion and energy and draw the listener more bodily into their driving rhythms. The whole is a satisfying combination of other-worldly sounds and toe-tapping grooves – to my ear one of Boddy’s strongest releases to date.
Bryter Layter – Two Lenses (Amazon download)
Compared to Ian Boddy’s 76 minute opus, Two Lenses by Bryter Layter (on the Students of Decay label) is an unassuming little album, compact and cosy. It may seem curious for a duo offering an album of synthetic soundscapes made on home-made synthesizers to name themselves after a 1970 album by folk icon Nick Drake, and yet (unless this is just the word association working on my ears) the album does at times have a folksy feel. Classic analog synthesizer music was meant to evoke the future, and more specifically a future of gleaming metal, rushing rocket ships and cosmic frontiers. Two Lenses evokes a more modest and personal space. Its tone is gently and wistfully reflective. The first half of the album focuses on plaintive, unassuming melodies, synthetic in timbre but nostalgic in tone – played on other instruments they might be instrumental folk pieces. The last two tracks work in a more standard cosmic mode, offering a delightful layering of high, reedy melody, a lugubriously wandering drift of bass tones, and mysterious bursts of swirling, rasping, pulsing, susurrating sounds that together open patient space for contemplation. And yet even here the music feels to me for the most part evocative of more modest spaces than the sweep of the galaxies – chamber music for the analog synth, as it were; synth music stripped of its frequent bombast and pretensions to grandeur and served in a cosier setting. The cover image with its warm colors and evocation of snug enclosure frames the album well, for the music is personal and intimate. This is a charming, kind-spirited album that is well worth a listen.
Egyptology – The Skies
Perhaps the most immediately arresting of the three albums reviewed here is The Skies by Egyptology, released on French label Clapping Music. A debut release, The Skies openly embraces science fiction tropes and glories with unashamed nostalgia in the imprecise sounds of retro analog synth music, while at the same time imbuing it with a childlike freshness that is simply fun to listen to. Opening with a driving, squelchy synth sequence overlaid with portentous tones and echoing pulses, the album establishes a sense of playful drama from the outset. As its pulses and atmospheres unfold the album achieves some of the same sense of naive, optimistic majesty that could be heard in the best of Vangelis (an artist whose sound world is clearly echoed more than once). The compositions are deceptively simple yet always engaging and convey a sense of sheer enjoyment of the sounds being created. Surprises lurk, like the gradual rhythmic shift of Orbis Part 2 Migration and the reedy alien voices of Orbis Part 3: Terraforming. Despite the occasional cosmic interlude, the album as a whole is driven by danceable rhythms cloaked in furry flurries of notes whose retro roots are worn on their murkily crackling sleeve. It might be tempting to call the album a guilty pleasure, except that there is no sense of guilt in the music, just a reveling in the fun that can still be had with old instruments. The result is one of the most appealing albums of the year so far.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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