Russian synth wizard vaporwave pioneer Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), has been at it for over a decade. His initial acclaim came with Rifts (2009), on which he created 70s-indebted progressive electronic and ambient soundscapes through a lens of nostalgia, armed with his trusty Juno-60 synth. Though the Juno has continued to feature in his material, he has taken that warped nostalgia into more experimental territory with his subsequent efforts. His recent output on Warp Records has descended into MIDI madness, with the wondrous, impressionistic R Plus Seven (2013) and the more abrasive and schizophrenic Garden of Delete (2015). Ultimately, what’s always distinguished his music is just the scope of bizarre arrangements, often anxious or excited, sometimes horrifying and off-putting, but usually simply refusing to stay still. Though there is often a great deal of underlying subtext and theme, his music seems to best evoke a more visceral reaction – to many, his music may be better felt than understood.
The announcement for Age Of was preceded by news of his new “concertscape” MYRIAD. Perhaps his most ambitious project to date, MYRIAD was touted as something of a culmination, a compression of the many eclectic and disparate influences that have permeated his work. Age Of is the album featuring music from this project. Musically, it goes further into the MIDI madness of his last two efforts, with something of a baroque slant. The arrangements in many parts are more sparse and exposed than on previous efforts, as though stripped away and contorted by some violent man-made disaster, betraying the ominous apocalyptic themes constantly looming beneath the surface. The array of influences, from the archaic and ancient to the modern, is reflected in Daniel Rudnick’s cover design, sparse but ornate, with Jim Shaw’s satirical technology-themed artwork The Great Whatsit.
Album opener and main overture “Age Of” may be enough to scare first-time listeners off, with its anxious MIDI harpsichord constantly contorting between being frantic and grandiose. Washy synth pads add colour while the brief operatic samples round out its warped baroque feel. The album is notably Lopatin’s first to feature his vocals prominently, in a heavily auto-tuned and digitised capacity. “Babylon” is the first song to feature his digitised crooning – over a peaceful, wandering ambient instrumentation, with keyboards that recall the Twin Peaks theme. There is again an underlying menace, but for the most part, the song simply just seems to hang in the air. The lead and only single to come off the album, “Black Snow”, proved divisive upon release – not only for the vocals, but for the very sparse and minimalist atmosphere – initially built around little more than a cold three-note bassline and finger snaps, the song has a distinct and cold air of malevolence. It also has a more conventional structure and rhythm than most Oneohtrix Point Never tracks.
“The Station” is similarly sparse, largely based around a brooding melodic loop, with the vocals tuned uncomfortably high as the various sounds rise and collapse, the chaos bubbling and constantly threatening to burst. “Still Stuff That Doesn’t Happen” might be the most unusual piece on the album. Based more around live instrumentation than the rest of the album, it starts off hesitantly, with muted drums, vocals and wafts of saxophone setting things in motion. There seems to be a great sadness to the piece, which is momentarily brought forward in what are perhaps the most lucid parts of the album.
“Manifold” is based around a creeping piano sample from a YouTube tutorial on reharmonisation by jazz pianist Julian Bradley and features an ominous spoken word passage from Turkish composer Tayfun Erdem’s Ararat the Border Crossing, with odd, mangled bits of speech rising up from time to time. “Myriad.industries”, the clearest tie to the concertscape title-wise, takes the MIDI harpsichord from the opener and absolutely mangles it, into black MIDI trash. With “Warning”, the album goes into thriller/horror territory. The piece writhes and pulsates with malevolent tension, before the alarm rings and an uncomfortably close scream ignites panic, launching the piece back to its starting point. It is, by all means, an unsettling and uncomfortable piece of music and where the album’s underlying tension and chaos fully emerge. “Same” resembles a long-lost 80s ballad fighting to be heard over the noise – when it does break through, it’s both soaring and overwhelming, the intense chord changes and off-colour vocals from Anohni giving it a warped feeling.
Though the vocal pieces are curious additions to the catalogue, it’s in the instrumentals where two of the main highlights can be found. The airy “Toys 2” features haunting and lush synth pads playing out a regal, somewhat exotic melody, joined by sighing keyboards and a jumpy percussion. A curious tidbit occurs as the ambient pads seem to be skipping and stuttering, before a one-second ping fixes it – like resetting the application on a device, taking the listener out of it briefly, as if it is some kind of simulation. “We’ll Take It” may well be the most intriguing piece on the record, as well as the most dense – like a car commercial or stage play from hell, with stately synth pads and wind-up industrial percussion. “RayCats” features a curious, slightly Oriental melodic figure played on what sounds like plucked strings. The Juno noodling adds little and the piece doesn’t particularly have enough ideas to remain engaging for its runtime. The low-key “Last Known Image of a Song” closes the album out with an abstraction – ethereal, cold synth pads forming the background for harsh waves of black snow, clinking percussion and later, subtle touches of brass as a double bass crawls along. It is an ending that makes for little resolve.
While Age Of provides no short supply of the surprising and arresting moments that Oneohtrix Point Never is known for, it certainly feels like a transitional record for Lopatin. There are moments that feel underdeveloped and meandering, souring the overall experience. Perhaps it is simply missing that extra dimension that would be filled with the MYRIAD show, however, on the merit of the music itself, Age Of would stand under his last few efforts.