Review Summary: Synth wizard taps into the past and the future while creating a sound that has everything to do with the present
Few films have had such a sonic and aesthetic impact on music in recent years as Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece. While the haunting synthscapes of Vangelis’s soundtrack are enough to spark the muses of countless musicians with vintage Roland Junos, it is the film’s theme of the melding of artificiality and reality that many musicians seek to capture. In an era where humanity and technology are growing closer together (and, according to some futurist theories, blurring and becoming indistinguishable), Blade Runner has become increasingly relevant, and this reflects in the art world–artists from dubsteppers Zomby and Kuedo to the more ambient-minded Solar Bears and Oneohtrix Point Never are prostrating themselves at the blinding neon altar of Vangelis and Blade Runner.
But of all the artists looking to capture the film’s vision in a musical context, none have been more effective than Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin. Armed with a vintage Roland Juno from 1984, Lopatin created a masterpiece of synthesizer music in last year’s Returnal, an album so dark, often jarring, and shamelessly artificial it would be a grave insult to refer to it as “ambient” (or worse, “New Age”). Replica, his follow-up, not only expands on his vision but takes it to completely new places through new genres and new media while remaining true to the tech-world philosophy that defines his music.
Like the Blade Runner score, Oneohtrix Point Never’s music can only be described in terms that one would not expect to be associated with ambient instrumental music. Heavy, emotional, disturbing, political, cerebral: not the sort of adjectives one would use for music with any resemblance to what you might hear in an elevator or an upscale Asian fusion restaurant. But Lopatin is not your average New Age dippie, and this is some seriously thought-provoking music. Take “Child Soldier.” The track begins with a child’s martial vocalizations, chopped up and juxtaposed with harsh arcade sounds. A melody shows up briefly but then disappears and is replaced with those same vocalizations. First, the rhythm becomes discernable, then the melody, and all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so shocking anymore. You’re basically being desensitized by the music, and by the end of the track, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the fractured sound of a bunch of kids being trained to kill.
The loops on “Child Soldier” almost seem clumsy, as if they were created by an amateur using the looping function on samples of pop songs and TV episodes on GarageBand. These awkward samples play a huge part in Replica’s sound. “Nassau” consists primarily of an arrythmic piano loop set against a backdrop of what sounds like someone chewing a cracker quite rudely, yet it still manages to sound eerie and nostalgic, like the audio of a half-remembered dinner. Yet the most effective use of this ungainly manipulation of samples is on “Power Of Persuasion”–there’s not even a beat to hold the seemingly disjointed loops together, but an achingly gorgeous synth-horn solo comes in towards the end to not so much drown everything else out as keep you in its grasp, letting all other sounds devolve into peripheral noise.
These moments of all-out beauty are not as omnipresent on Replica as they were on Returnal. The straightforward ambient tracks (i.e. the ones that are meant to be perceived as “pretty sound”) seem like spaces between the more experimental tracks, suggesting that Replica is not meant to be as aurally pleasing as it is cerebrally. While this should result in an album that is much darker and less easy to listen to than its predecessor, Replica almost seems like a collection of pop songs–only one song exceeds the five-minute mark, and even its most challenging moments do not possess the industrial harshness of tracks like Returnal’s noise freakout “Nil Admirari.”
Yet despite Replica’s concise structure Lopatin’s greatest strength remains his ability to render the listener completely lost in his music, a trait that is by no means absent on the album. On previous albums, Lopatin chose to do this through the sheer spatial vastness of the sounds he created, but on Replica, he almost creates a world around these pieces to give them a sort of context. The lonely eating ritual of “Nassau,” the warriors in training on “Child Soldier,” the hopeful cry looped to infinity on “Up”–all of these feel like sounds from a distant future filtered through your headphones. Lopatin is not only creating sounds from another world, he is creating that very world for his music. It’s not a perfect world, and whether you would want to visit or not is up to you, but chances are, it will leave a strong impression.