Be it via cold statistical analysis or dull observational studies, hard scientific research is the standard by which we uncover the way things work. However, in exploring The Nature of Imitation, Oliver Thomas Johnson plays the role of mad scientist by fusing 60s jazz, 70s fusion, 80s neo prog-rock and 90s electronica to create an album which is very much its own monster.
Johnson was a trailblazer amongst an early wave of bedroom producers who impressed by playing deep electronic cuts live and on the fly. Dorian Concept, his solo project, gained traction when Flying Lotus first included some tracks on his Essential Mix of 2008, before enlisting him in his live band. Following 2014’s serene Joined Ends, he signed with Flying Lotus’ eclectic Brainfeeder label. Indicating a move into the eccentric, he took himself off the grid after a heavy touring schedule to un-learn his production process entirely. What results is a mutative collection of songs that refuses to be pinned down.
A synth laden funk orchestra greets us on album opener “Promises”, before a break-back beat of crunchy percussive elements and lush chords take over. Synths beep and squeak over the top of heavily processed lyrics, something Johnson used rarely and reluctantly on prior records. This imprint of humanity amongst an overtly colourful and electronic arrangement grounds the track nicely. However, whilst the primary four-five chord progression is a stable foundation for the circus of synths to roam around it, each section feels fragmented, making it difficult to sink into from the outset.
A series of pitch shifts preface the polarising “Angel Shark”. In contrast to the preceding track, a hardstyle electronic motif moves, in the blink of an eye, into funk groove territory before slowly raising the distortion to stitch the styles together. Subdued moments of low-end chords in isolation offer a clarity to the intricacies of the melodic elements that may otherwise be missed. Tension and release is a technique Johnson enjoys manipulating, as exemplified on “J Buyers”. As the crawling chord progression builds under an arpeggiated synth, subtle claps and synth glides, the expected drop is subverted for a lo-fi rendition of the hook. This fake out gives a boost of life to the drop when it finally does arrive. Bass pounds and a satisfying vocal-supported synth hook round out as tight a mix as we’ve come to expect from Johnson.
Channelling Boards of Canada on “A Mother’s Lament” is an analogue swell which pervades the lo-fi ballad. A welcome relaxant from the three pacey opening tracks, the soundscape here delivers something familiarly whimsical for the listener to grasp onto before moving into the genre bending track “No Time Not Mine”. A hook is teased before a lead synth hammers it home amidst a chorus of claps, chants and squelchy synths. As this washes away, an electro funk section takes hold, melding urban grooves with a sharp lead synth; a timbre not usually synonymous with the style but used inventively here. Though interesting in their own right, each section suffers a similar fate to the album opener by being too disparate from one another.
A gentle piano introduction is quickly excused for a heavy beat and melodic bloops on “Pedestrians”. Gated synths meld rhythm with melody before vocals combine with synths, a characteristic sound etched into the album. Counterpoint melodies overlay a steady rhythm section of chords that keep everything grounded, ushering in a more measured back half of the record. “Self Similarity” refutes busy synth bleeps for a measured progression that transitions through hip hop, club and RNB styles over its duration. An ensemble of bells, arpeggiated chords and live drum n bass drums elements appear and slink away with nuance to create one of the stronger tracks on the album.
The gentle piano intro of “Dishwater” lurks insidiously before resolving into a distorted funk groove whilst “E13” feels like a free fusion jazz jam. Whilst maintaining the eccentric aesthetic of the album, there’s a deprivation of hooks that make these theoretically compelling tracks rather forgettable. The space moves between dreamy synth strings and symphonic grandiosity accorded by a booming bass and piercing solo synth. When successful, the impact of these seamless transitions leaves you somewhere between floating on a cloud in one instance before being flung into a wall the next.
Closer “You Give And Give” ends things in a surprisingly comforting way. Lo-fi sounding keys work through an uplifting progression married with vocals that caress you back to normalcy. Comparing this to the robot-sounding electro funk orchestra that greeted us on the opening shows how far Johnson has taken us over after a rapid fire 39 minutes.
Dorian Concept’s third full-length release is an album that won’t necessarily welcome you in with open arms. Tossing together a variety of often conflicting styles, timbres and structures initially sounds busy and confused. The hooks that are present fail to hang around long enough to ingrain themselves and warrant a return, making this an album that could easily blow past you. However, repeated listens will afford transparency to some of the atypical rhythms and compelling transitions between musical styles that Johnson’s new Brainfeeder family will undoubtedly appreciate.