Review Summary: The shape of lo-fi to comeDownfall of the Neon Youth
is the most convincing snapshot I’ve heard of how it feels to be emotionally dwarfed both by mankind as an institution and artificial reality as a daily habitat. It takes the kind of enormity typically associated with jugular metropolitan cities (#tokyolights), holds it against the kind of dissociation practically native to those environments, and superimposes the whole lot over sprawling cyberspace, both bandage and amplifier for the loneliness that sucks people in to begin with. Downfall of the Neon Youth
isn't ‘about’ these things as it is entirely of them, a split LP between three of the most exciting (or at the very least, industrious) emo artists to have emerged in recent years: Asian Glow, Parannoul and Sonhos Tomam Conta. These three solo projects are as united by their shared palette of shoegaze, noise pop and post-rock as they are by a shared sense of wonder and anxiety, the kind that comes hand in hand with feelings of alienation in the face of something much, much bigger. You are so small and the world is so huge and provides so many possibilities for your tiny speck of self, yet it will continue to dwarf you no matter how many you realise
Space both literal and figurative is crucial here, and it takes on a distinct set of connotations for each artist. For Parannoul, most mysterious and MIDI-bound of the three, this is charted by the boundary between the loneliness-comfort-bubble of bedroom space and the terrifyingly infinite universe that encloses it; between stagnant past-nostalgia and aspirational future-nostalgia. His songs are maudlin by nature and epic out of necessity; their towering, linearly-denoted peaks give their emotional stew the something
it’s so palpably reaching for. When they land, do so with enough conviction to shed their trappings of reclusive fantasy, however briefly - the effect is less discarded-chrysalis than bittersweet-moment-of-lucidity, but Parannoul is too self-conscious to posit his escapes as anything more than transient. As a lyricist, he’s the first to admit his compensation for a glum interior reality with a dazzling show of outward elation; no surprises that he also designed the cover artwork.
On the other hand, Sonhos Tomam Conta is the most adept producer and more organic in her choice of tones, but her music hardly feels any more 'real' than Parannoul's self-announcing V-instruments. Her oneiric brand of shoegaze does away with the borders of bedroom, exterior, and imaginary spaces almost entirely; though her music is no more or less ‘structured’ than her companions’, it feels the most formless, or at least the most disorienting. Testament to this is her on-and-off incorporation of blackgaze, which on paper should scan as the record’s most abrasive sections by some distance - the reality is that they’re just another woozy facet of an ongoing fever dream. At times, her aspaciousness is exhilarating and swept away in its own ; at others, it scans as a medication-induced retreat from past trauma, as per lyrical overtones.
Finally, Asian Glow has the clearest foothold in waking earthly reality. His palette has much in common with traditional distortion-happy lofi (see: every comparison made between his excellent record Cull Ficle
and Phil Elverum’s The Glow Pt. 2
) and his lyrics, while no stranger to abstraction, stand out for their visceral situation within the here-and-now. Even by emo standards, Asian Glow is restless
: if Parannoul is swaying to and fro on the threshold of his bedroom door and Sonhos Tomam Conta is lurking deep within her own self-sheltering pocket of hyperreality, then Asian Glow is stuck in the world as we know it, at a loss as to where to escape to. Of course his sound is the grittiest and most tactile of the three; his anxiety is the most kinetic.
These distinctions between artists, sounds and spaces are interesting on a case-by-case level, but Downfall of the Neon Youth
works far better as a mesh of their constituent visions than as the intermittent sample platter of your typical split. It’s a patchwork of dreams from a patchwork of dreamers, all set in in the shadow of *insert intimidating postmodern structure*. In line with this, the sequencing rotates between the three artists rather than each allotting a dedicated bloc, the album is arguably strongest over its first three cuts, not so much on the strength of material (though “Nails” and “Insomnia” were gamechangers for Asian Youth and Parannoul, respectively), but because the differences between each artist are most clearly pronounced at this stage.
In contrast, the main critique to be levelled at the whole package is oversaturation. Somewhere in between Sonhos Tomam Conta’s “todos os sonhos que en tive” and Asian Glow’s “Phone Ringing On Corridor”, the record loses its initial distinction and settles into a muchness, its haze suddenly a little too homogenous to offer more than a glimpse of those skyward city lights and distant dreams that serve as its lifepulse. This is broken momentarily by the searing blackgaze of Sonhos Tomam Conta’s “tons de azul” and the riotous pummel-jaunt of Asian Glow’s “one May Be Harming” (perhaps the closest thing here to outright ‘fun’), but it takes until the closer “Love Migraine” to shake its grip entirely. This track is a stirring final note, easily one of Parannoul’s most mature compositions to date and perhaps the first time that album’s aesthetic preoccupations are fleshed out in a clearly defined songwriter’s-song. Anchored in a clear structure and key changes, it may scan as too little too late for some, but there's something to be said for the answer it provides to the preceding however many minutes’ quest for form.
In spite of all this, Downfall of the Neon Youth
is a huge record within and without its scene. It’s a little unfortunate that its milestone status has generally been interpolated within oddball labellings: 5th wave emo and Korean/Brazilian emogaze are neither here nor there as far as half the people who should
care about this album are concerned. The reasons I’d wholeheartedly place it, in its way, as one of the most important records of the present decade go beyond genre concerns and offer an intimate pulse-check on what counts as visceral and authentic in a wider sense: this album charts the emergence of the bedroom solo project as an entity unto itself, no longer circumstantially digital but thoroughly steeped in a virtual and online reality established enough that it no longer needs the possibilities of physical performance, IRL discourse or even realistic emulations of real instruments to justify its musicality; it establishes often amateurish use of the Digital Audio Workstation as its own form of lofi; it pulls its respective forms of emphatically-rock music away from their indexical real-person-making-real-sound value where convenient (don’t even try to keep track of all that MIDI), yet clings fast to it where vital (all vox, most guitars). The resultant halfway house scans twice as beguiling as a purely digital alternative: the strain and imperfection in Parannoul’s vocals ground his spiralling e-music with a depth that, say, a vocaloid artist could never approach.
None of this is without precedent, but nothing I've heard to date draws the same sense of awe and scale from the specifics of its production (though Weatherday’s Come In
is certainly a significant precursor). The likes of Have A Nice Life and Car Seat Headrest seemed exceptional because of levels of ambition they attached to their forays into part-digital lofi grandeur; on Downfall of the Neon Youth
, these qualities scan as a normality-to-be, a future midway through unfolding: a new (or newly definitive) aesthetic and production environment being erected in realtime, with a shared sigh of immensity on the part of its contributors as they embrace it for all that it's worth. But it’s not just about digital production space: the Downfall of the Neon Youth
artists bottle that hypermodern dissociated impulse to reconcile imaginary and virtual realities with the real thing, to make something out of nothing, to exist nowhere and feel everything. There has never been such a place for music to capture this (thanks internet, thanks quarantine), and the record’s willingness to do so in a new language of production is just one part of an ongoing erosion of traditional confines that it exemplifies, from aesthetics to geography (it’s as representative of this as anything that the most relevant capital-E emo for the digital era is no longer coming from backwater America, or even the Anglosphere full stop). The spirit of this album is practically a pining for its escapist dream to somehow be enough
were it to manifest, and it's so focused, so resolute in its vision that if you close your eyes and let it helm your fantasies for however many critical moments, you may just end up believing it could be.