“…a new way to engage with sound somewhere in between the intellectual bent of music concréte, the straight up wash of ambient soundscapes and the subversive elements of early electronica artists” – Ian Maleney on Replica, the latest album from Daniel Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never.
Noise and ambient music are difficult fields to criticize. With music which is often minimal, usually programmed in some way and often contains little more than textural sounds, a point of entry is going to be difficult to find. When you are in and you’ve got your head around what you’re listening to, it becomes important to in some way figure out how to differentiate the good from the bad. With the techniques it takes to make ambient music – and electronic music in general – becoming easier and easier to imitate, it becomes more vital to judge the authentic, courageous and visionary works from the merely pre-set. Daniel Lopatin has always stood out from the crowd, whether using one of his many monikers or with the project whose latest offering we’re here to review, Oneohtrix Point Never.
Lopatin’s traditionally key elements in OPN has been sampling and droning, both of which are developed to new levels on his newest record. One the of the fundamental aspects of Replica is the samples taken from television adverts from the 80s and 90s. In focusing on the way advertisement goes about it’s business of getting under your skin, Lopatin de-constructs sounds we are familiar with to present them as the opposite of what they were intended to be. He strips the advertisement samples of their original meaning, removing all mention of product, and moves them beyond language or intelligibility. By concentrating on the apparently negative space between the words, he brings to the fore what he calls “the subconscious” of the samples. It makes for an hypnotic experience, as the repetitious, grid-based rhythms of the music become slowly ingrained in the mind over the course of four or five minutes, all without actually saying anything in particular, before being consumed in a wash of synthesizer or noise. It is pure sound with hints of intelligibility to draw you in, familiar snippets of texture stripped of their ability to communicate. What we’re left with is a space for the listener to project upon, a well where you can go as deep as you wish. The further in you allow yourself to go, the less chance you have of being disturbed by the ripples in the air around you.
The drone element is still hugely important, with some tracks – such as the downright lush ‘Submersible’ – being defined by the synthesizer arrangements. Beds of sound give context to the samples which often perform a percussive role, surrounded again by synths which imitate traditional instruments like trumpets and organs. The use of synths to replicate (that word again) is key in the degree of separation which Lopatin wedges between the listener and the sounds. By removing the possibility of actual linear understanding of a sound based on prior experience of it, he forces the listener to engage on a different level, a plain of new sounds, rhythms and understanding. ‘Child Soldier’ offers a prime example of this, being far and away the most aggressive and alienating track on show before becoming gradually subsumed in slow-attack synth chords. Eventually the vocal samples, which started out as almost violent, become soulful in their new context.
A word or two must be reserved for the title track, the key to the record in many ways. On one hand it is similar to the rest of the album, slow-moving and noisy at times. On the other, it is fundamentally and illuminatingly different from the pieces that surround it. The key element to the track is the stately piano, which is very obviously and unobtrusively just that. It comes as quite a shock; a distinctly recognisable tone, timbre and texture peaking out of the noise to highlight in relief the non-traditional nature of all that has gone before it. The chords are slow and melancholy in a way that eludes the rest of the album. It pulls more familiarly on the heartstrings, drawing out a huge range of associations which each of us has built up with that simple tone and drives home one of the album’s underlying concepts; familiarity breeds intimacy, even when we think we are beyond it.
Ultimately, this is a great album. It toys endlessly with tradition, from sampling methods to arrangement techniques and it’s backed up with a solid ideological aim to boot. It is not emotional, but neither is it cold. Most importantly, it offers a new way to engage with sound somewhere in between the intellectual bent of music concréte, the straight up wash of ambient soundscapes and the subversive elements of early electronica artists who sought to highlight the awkwardness inherent in pop culture. It does all this without climbing onto a perch and preaching, or the modern default of being ironic. It’s an album that rewards immersion and repeat listens, revealing something new – about itself and the listener – from behind the veil of noise every time you go back to it.